Use the ‘Circle of Concern’ to Reframe Your Fears in Uncertain Times

A visual to remind you what’s in your control

A photo of a young girl’s eye peering through a hole in a blue wall.

InIn his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduced a tool that’s stuck with me — one that I now use regularly to cope with anxiety, especially when I’m anxious about things that are outside of my control. Every situation, he writes, can be divided into two circles: the circle of concern, which consists of factors we have little or no influence over, and the circle of influence, which is made up of things we can control.

To see how it works, let’s apply these two circles to the thing that’s dominating our worries right now: the coronavirus pandemic. Here, the circle of concern is blue, and the circle of influence is white.

In the circle of concern, we can see that many external events—such as the news, other people’s behavior amid the panic, and the outbreak itself—are things that concern us, but are outside our control. In contrast, everything in the white circle, which includes our attitude and behavior, what we watch on TV, and who we surround ourselves with, are within our control.

An important thing to understand is that the circles shrink or expand depending on where we put our focus and effort. If we obsess over external events — the worldwide death toll or how the disease will impact the economy — our minds will go into overdrive, and we’ll only be expanding our circle of concern. This will impact how much brain space we’ll be able to give the things we do have control over, such as our ability to think rationally, our attitude toward others, and how we act around our loved ones.

The idea here is simple: By focusing on the things we can control, we’ll expand our circle of influence. Beyond that, we’ll have a positive impact on those around us, thus shrinking our circle of concern. If everyone stopped panic-buying and posting dramatic claims on social media and instead started following the health guidelines and helping others, we’d have a lot less to be worried about.

If we focus on the circle of concern, we allow what’s in it to control us. If we focus on the circle of influence, we are the ones in charge. It’s okay to be afraid — we all are — but understanding where to channel our thoughts and energy can help us more clearly navigate these uncertain times.

Change is possible. I write to show that. Author | Recovered addict | Speaker | PhD candidate.

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