Do you or perhaps your child feel that your life is out of control at the moment? If so, you need to do the Circle of Control exercise. Life may feel out of control, but if you break it down you will see that you actually have a lot of control in some areas.
This exercise will bring you a sense of clarity and peace and help you let go of some of your burdens. It’s such a powerful exercise that my team and I use it regularly in our therapy sessions at Everlief Child Psychology. I also use it with my own teenage children and for personal use. Using my free circle of control printable, you will be able to easily figure out exactly what aspects of your life are within your circle of influence, and which you cannot control.
Once you have your circles mapped out using the circle of control worksheet, you will be able to take effective action.
Signs That the Circle of Control Exercise Will Help You (or Your Child)
The circle of control will help if you or your child:
- Regularly feel overwhelmed
- Struggle with emotional regulation e.g. anxiety, panic or anger
- Worry a lot
- Are a perfectionist in any (or all) areas of life.
What is the Circle of Control Exercise?
The Circle of Control is a variation of a an idea attributed to Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In this book, Covey refers to the circle of influence. The circle of influence involves writing down all your concerns in a circle. Then, in an inner circle, you write down those concerns you have influence over, and you focus on those.
Covey argues that many of us make the mistake of dwelling on areas of our lives over which we have no control. This can contribute to poor mental health including depression and anxiety.
The circle of control exercise is slightly different because it uses three areas rather than two, as you will see in the examples and the printable worksheets.
The circle of control exercise is a great tool for re-evaluating your life and questioning your assumptions. For example, if your child feels they have no control over having to go to school, the circle of control is a great way to break that assumption down. Okay, they do have to go to school. But within that, where do they have some control? Below is an example for a fictional child, 14 year-old Elise.
As you can see, you can use the circles of control exercise to analyse one specific area of life, but you can also look at your life as a whole.
All you need to figure out your circles of control is a pen and a piece of paper, but why not use my free printable templates?
The Benefits of Understanding Your Circles of Control
Many of us have the underlying belief that life is something that “happens to us” or is “done to us”. This may feel especially true if you have been through difficult times. This is known as “learned helplessness” and is associated with poor levels of wellbeing, and depression in particular.
It’s vital for us to learn that, whilst there are of course things that we cannot control, we also have more control over some areas of life than we think. Focusing on those areas builds our confidence, self-esteem and sense of purpose.
How to Download Your Circle of Control Printable
You can download your free circle of control worksheets right here.
How to Use the Circle of Control Printable
The circle of control has also been referred to as the circle of concern. You can think about concerns, worries, or simply areas of your life (or your child’s). I recommend that you draw out your own circles of control before supporting your child, so that you have personal experience.
You will need a biro plus 3 coloured pens (in the instructions we are going to go for blue, green and red).
Using the square box in your blank circle of control template (or your own free-hand circles if you prefer), write down all your concerns, worries or areas of life. Spend 10-15 minutes letting your brain offload.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
The Outer Area
Next, use the blue coloured pen to draw a circle around all the areas or concerns over which you feel you have absolutely no control whatsoever. Examples might include:
- The weather on your Summer holiday.
- The price of your gym membership.
- Your child’s obsession with gaming.
Copy these circled items into the outer area (the square) on the outside of your circles of control.
These are areas that you should try not to waste too much energy on. Of course, your Summer holiday will be so much better if you have great weather, but there is nothing you can do about it, so it is not helpful to spend time thinking about it. Let it go.
You may feel like you must do something about your child’s obsession with gaming. But you may be fighting a losing battle which will lead not only to conflict but to a sense of failure and helplessness. Instead, think about areas connected to the obsession that you have some control over, such as your family rules and boundaries around screen time.
The Outer Circle
Use the green pen to circle the items over which you feel you have a little control. You do not feel you have complete control over these areas but you have some influence.
Next, looking at these areas over which you have some control, are there smaller parts of these areas which you can fully control? For example, you may not be able to fully control how much sleep you get, but you can fully control your bedtime wind-down routine and switching off social media at a set time each evening. Add more items to the large square box (page 1 of the circle of control worksheets) as you think of them.
Copy the items circled in green into the outer circle in your circles of control diagram.
Examples might include:
- My weight.
- How much sleep I get.
- My food shopping bills.
The Inner Circle (Circle of Influence)
Finally, you should be left with areas that you feel you have a lot of control over. This is also known as your circle of influence. Circle these in red, and transfer them to the inner circle of your circle of control template. Add new areas as and when you think of them.
These are the areas where you should initially focus as much energy as possible. You will probably find that there are some areas you have allowed to control you, but over which it’s easy to regain control. Taking charge of the items in your circle of influence is going to have a positive impact on your wellbeing. Examples might include:
- The time you spend scrolling through social media.
- Your bedtime wind-down routine.
- Meal planning for the week.
To ensure you actually take action, next I want you to write down 2-3 actions you can take from the inner circle, that will make you feel strong and empowered straight away. They don’t need to be big or grand. In fact, small actions are more manageable and will give you a sense of achievement more quickly.
In my opinion it’s better to take regular small, consistent actions, than to set huge goals with a high risk of failure. If you’re doing this exercise with a teen, have a look at my colleague Hayley Vaughan-Smith’s article on SMART goals for teens.
Here are some examples of clearly defined actions:
- I will remove the Instagram and TikTok apps from my phone. When I go on social media I will set a timer for 20 minutes and stop when the timer goes off.
- Every evening I will do a 5 minute yoga wind-down routine from YouTube, then have a warm shower before going to bed.
- I will create a 2-week rolling menu of family meals. On Saturdays I will buy the ingredients for the meals. On Sundays I will prepare two meals in advance that can be heated quickly in the oven on our busiest nights of the week.
How to Practise the Circle of Control Exercise
I recommend that you re-do your circles of control regularly. Our lives change all the time, and with it, our areas of control. What was previously out of our control may know feel well within it, or perhaps vice versa. I suggest updating your circles of control monthly.
It’s also important that you frequently remind yourself (or your child) about the things in the inner and middle circles. It’s not easy to change our belief that we don’t have any control over our lives, and the brain needs constant reminders to (eventually) get it hard-wired into the brain.
The best way to do this is to create a circles of control poster. A large, colourful version of your circles of control, put somewhere prominent like the fridge or your bedroom wall. You can simply put the complete page of your circle of control printable on the wall, or you can create a larger, bolder version, perhaps highlighting the key areas of action.
Using the Circle of Control For Kids
The Circles of Control exercise can be really helpful for kids and teenagers because it gives them a sense of agency. By understanding what they can control, they can feel more prepared to handle tough situations. They will develop enhanced self-awareness and it is likely to reduce the anxiety and stress children get when they feel out of control.
How Do You Explain Circles of Control to a Child?
I would say that children aged 8+ will be able to understand and usefully apply the circles of control. Here’s an example of how you could explain it:
“Imagine there are three circles, one inside the other like a target. The smallest circle in the center is where you put things that you can control, like your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is the circle where you have the most power.
The middle circle is for things that you can’t control, but you can influence. For example, you might be able to influence how your friends treat you by being kind to them, but you can’t control how they act.
The biggest circle on the outside is for things that you have no control over, like the weather or what other people think of you. These things are outside of your control, so it’s important not to worry too much about them.
By understanding what you can control, what you can influence, and what you can’t control, you can feel more in control of your life and better able to handle tough situations.”
Practise the circle of control exercise regularly and you will start to see your own attitude towards control shifting, and your wellbeing improving! You will develop more confidence in your own abilities as you recognise where you can exert control and influence.
The circles of control exercise is brilliant for both adults and children who feel either stuck or out of control. It teaches you to reassess your level of control on any given day, and take simple action steps.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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