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How to Stay Sane in an Insane System

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Many of us have worked in big bureaucracies or other systems in which Rule #1 seems to be “nothing makes sense.” We can spend much of our time frustrated and angry about how illogical the decisions of others may seem. Sometimes these decisions impact us directly; at other times, they just seem to perpetuate the prevailing dysfunction. Each person’s situation is unique, of course, but there are some coping skills that may be helpful across the board.

One of the first internal questions to ask is “what is in my control?” There is a concept called “Spheres of Influence.” Concentric circles are often used to illustrate this model. In his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey describes our “Circle of Influence” vs our “Circle of Concern.”  Other models add a third circle to this concept the “Circle of Control.”

The innermost circle is called the “Circle of Control.” This represents ourselves and those closest to us. Basically, we can only control our own actions. The next circle is called the “Circle of Influence”: we have an impact on those with whom we work or interact. The outermost circle is the “Circle of Concern.” Sometimes what we do will have a ripple effect on the greater system, but this area is where we have the least control.

Much of our frustration can come from wanting change in the sphere where we have the least control.  Assessing where we can have the most impact can allow us to use our energy most efficiently. We can develop proactive plans within our sphere of control, as reflected with these affirmations: “I do my job with integrity, ”My groups are of a high quality”, “I treat my customers/coworkers with respect” etc.   Having pride in what is in our control can mitigate some of the frustration.

Other coping skills include self-care such as having outlets outside the job. Physical outlets or creative outlets can be especially restorative. Having trusted supports and select people to talk to can also help. This is different from the general complaining that many do on the job. Trusted supports give us a supportive, non-judgmental space to explore our situation while maintaining confidentiality. In addition, looking for evidence that things will get better can sustain hope and energy through difficult periods.

These suggestions are not to say that talking to supervisors, making suggestions or being an advocate for systemic change is discouraged. There are numerous pathways to working in those outer spheres.  The pattern that is most unhealthy is railing about the system, and not taking action in the areas where change is most possible. According to Covey, people reduce their field of influence by focusing on the circle of concern.

Ultimately, we can choose to leave a system that is toxic or “insane.” In the meantime, or if it is not possible to leave, we have strategies to protect our own emotional health. Over the years, although we may have heard it many times, the words of the Serenity Prayer still ring true. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


Learn more about the author of this post: Pat Harthun, LCPC


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