Those who know me well know my mantra: Sphere of Control. In my last post, I wrote about my fondness for FISH! Philosophy. To me, “sphere of control” is an extension of the FISH! tenet, “Choose Your Attitude.” Essentially, when I find myself in difficult situations or dealing with difficult people, I recognize that the only thing I truly have full control over is my own attitude or response (behavior). I may be able to influence someone’s behavior by tweaking the situation through my actions or words, resulting in a more positive outcome than had I not gotten involved… but regardless, truly the only thing I can fully control is my own reaction.If I react from a place of negativity, I recognize that this may have additional consequences (e.g. making the situation worse, reducing the potential for learning, or damaging a relationship). If I respond positively, I may expand a capacity for growth and connection (e.g. building a relationship, seeing new opportunities that come with openness, and generally feeling less frustrated). Or, (and we often forget this option) I can choose not to respond at all and walk away.
Working in a WCenter, and in social justice work in general, brings with it frequent challenges. While it appears that blatant acts of oppression (sexism, racism, and heterosexism) are less frequent, some argue that microagressions are even more prevalent and the cumulative impact even more deeply felt. If you’re not familiar with the term “microagressions” or need some examples, check out this series and this tumblr.
How or if we choose to respond when challenges arise is the point of this post. What is within our sphere of control? What is within our sphere of influence? What is neither within our control nor influence and is irrelevant? Spending a few moments identifying where any given situation is classified may help us recognize what we should address directly and what we should ignore.
Before I get to that, let me take a step back … those of us who do social justice work likely are driven by our deep connection to lived experiences. As a female, I have experienced blatant discrimination as well as subtle microaggressions in the workplace and in society in general in the form of sexism. However, as a white, middle class, straight, cisgendered woman, I also benefit from privilege based on my race, class, sexual identity, and gender expression (feminine). As a feminist activist, I recognize how these privileges grant me access to resources with which I can respond to microaggressions. I can access a network, I can lodge complaints, and I can generally be heard in ways that those without these same privileges are not. And, in many cases, I have the ability to respond in the manner of my choosing. When I want to, I can walk away. I acknowledge that a limitation of this model of recognizing the sphere of control versus influence is how it may look different or be implemented differently depending on social group identity and privilege.
So, when difficult situations happen, how do we determine if and when we should respond? Given the limitations discussed above, here’s what I’d suggest we ask ourselves:
Is the situation within my sphere of control? How might I change my attitude or behavior as a result of the circumstance? Here’s an example from my own experience: One day only a few months after arriving as the director of the WCenter, I was showing another staff member some resources that I had brought with me and I believe I said something to the effect of “You guys are free to use these any time you’d like.” She gently and graciously suggested that I think about my use of the words “you guys” when referring to other members of the WCenter staff. While I was horrified and deeply embarrassed, she was absolutely right. I was using “you guys” to refer to groups of women all of the time…. and up to that point, I hadn’t really thought about the implications. I apologized. I said something to the effect of “you’re absolutely right, thank you for pointing this out to me!” While I still slip up from time to time, it is completely within my sphere of control to remove the words “you guys” from my language (particularly when referring to all-female groups). And, even more to my point… my reaction to her confrontation could have gone a different way. I could have gotten defensive. I could have disregarded her confrontation and not considered her perspective. My reaction was within my sphere of control. I was wrong, I admitted it, I changed my actions from that point forward.
Is the situation within my sphere of influence and am I invested in the relationship or outcome? We all have some level of influence. Simply by using our voices and speaking up we can make change. The feminist vision for an inclusive and equitable society is that all people regardless of their social status or privilege would have access the agency to speak up should they so choose. No voices should be silenced. And, we should fine tune our abilities to see what voices are not present and seek their input. But, should/can we use our influence as often as situations present themselves? Given the frequency of problematic circumstances of which we may become aware, perhaps we should carefully choose which situations warrant our attention and energy. How we choose to (or not) respond or confront a situation should be carefully considered given the long term impacts to our own resiliency (and sometimes to our safety). Here’s an example from my own experience: I posted a picture on Facebook and accompanied it with a statement about my views on homophobic discrimination. The resulting commentary among my Facebook friends devolved into a heated debate. I acknowledge my role in creating the situation but I have now a choice whether or not I continue to engage in the discussion. I can choose if I remain (or not) friends with individuals who make homophobic remarks in their posts. Offline in person or via direct message, if the relationship is one that matters to me, I can engage in a side conversation to explain my standpoint on the topic. I recognize that I cannot change their beliefs or actions, but I can choose if and how I interact with this person in the future. Do you find yourself participating in these scenarios? What time and energy are you expending using your influence when it’s potentially not fruitful?
Is the situation neither within my control nor influence? Or, can I make any difference? In all honestly, recognizing how and why some situations are outside of our control or influence is hard. Sometimes, when faced with challenges, all we can do is seek to understand, analyze, and apply our knowledge. But the reality is that this process may have little direct impact on the larger societal change we seek. For example: when marching for Take Back The Night, I wanted to feel that our collective activism will make the night safe for all people and that the silence that shrouds rape and sexual assault will change. When planning a Love Your Body Day event and creating educational awareness against unfair representations of women in media I wanted to believe that eventually we will see a change in the media our children consume. I want to know that marching in the streets for marriage equality will change the hearts and minds of lawmakers. But, these changes are indeed outside my direct control or influence. This doesn’t mean I stop trying to make change or fighting for justice or speaking up. We are educators because we want to offer hope for a better future. However, fundamental change may be elusive or impossible to realize within our lifetimes. If the situation remains unchanged, how do we remain inspired to act? At the end of the day, how do we find renewal and hope? How we reflect on the importance of our work regardless of our ability to control or influence is key to our resiliency.
For me, choosing my attitude is about knowing my the bounds of my sphere of control. It also means mobilizing a positive attitude to influence others. I try (though hard) to recognize when a situation is neither within my sphere of control or influence.
Let’s continue the conversation. When have you employed a “sphere of control” approach to a situation? How has working in social justice education altered your thoughts on the influence you might have in creating change? What provides renewal for your motivations going forward?