James Ullrich, M.A. LMHCA

Originally published on my  Psychology Today blog.

Each New Year brings with it the promise of starting fresh or tackling that long-standing item on the bucket list. It’s a great opportunity to commit to something that can enhance your well-being, the most popular being health-related. We all want to feel our best and perform at our highest level, and this is a great time of the year to think about how to go about it. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your physical and emotional health is to establish a stronger sense of control over your life in 2015.

A feeling of lack of control over one’s life–a vague sense of powerlessness over the micro-and-macro events and irritations thrown at us every day– can lead to depression, anxiety, and chemical dependency. Life is, of course, unpredictable and at times overwhelming, but there are a few strategies anyone can employ to counteract the feeling of a life gone out of control:

Set achievable goals in your professional and private life. Much distress and dissatisfaction comes from laboring after unrealistic goals in our professional and relational world. Keep in mind there is only so much you can achieve by yourself in an organization or a relationship.

Choose relationships that are fair and mutually healthy. This follows the previous suggestion. Learn to identify narcissists, sociopaths and other individuals driven by ego and a desire for control over others. They care nothing about destabilizing the lives of others and often leave a trail of human devastation in their wake. Avoid these toxic people at all costs in every sphere of your life, even if it means sacrificing companionship or professional gain in the short term.

Work in a healthy atmosphere. If at all possible, choose a healthy work arrangement. Having a difficult or incompetent boss or a clutch of difficult colleagues can make any job harder. If you’re stuck with a bad situation, try to communicate to your boss that his or her behavior is negatively affecting your ability to function. You might not change their personality or management style, but making them aware of how their approach is detrimental to your performance might make them more thoughtful in their interactions with you.

Follow your passion. Another significant source of dissatisfaction is laboring in something we don’t care much about. Locate your passion in your professional and personal lives and pursue it with all your energy; you’ll find it energizes you rather than depletes you.

Practice meditation. This is one of the most impactful ways to spend a few minutes of your day, and doesn’t mean you have to reach Bhudda-like levels of transcendence or don an orange toga. Neural research shows that even a few minutes of quiet contemplation and measured breathing can restore our mental equilibrium, reduce the cortisol in our system and lower our blood pressure. Even recalling a favorite memory can produce emotional and physiological benefits.

Learn to say “no.” This is a hard one for so many of us. Especially those who like to please and hate to disappoint a friend who’d like us to join a last-minute party, a lecture or a chore like helping them move house. But not having the skill of knowing when—and how—to say “no” to certain things –i.e. things that will clog up our schedule and end up inflicting stress as a result—can undermine our well-being. Learning to politely but firmly decline is vital for maintaining peak emotional health.

To a great degree, gaining a sense of control is about knowing oneself, and as Shakespeare adroitly advised, “To thyne own self be true.” Knowing your priorities and establishing your boundaries accordingly can guide your decision making as you face the myriad of opportunities in the year ahead, and can help you choose the kinds of situations and relationships that empower you rather than demoralize you. Control is something we create and foster, and it is up to each individual to maximize their own sense of control over an increasingly complicated life.

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