Stoicism and the Trichotomy of Control: Why You Need to Know What It Is and How It Changed My Life!

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Last Updated on April 29, 2022 by

When we actively label what we can, cannot and can somewhat control, we remove a lot of stress and anxiety from our lives. In this article I discuss stoicism, the trichotomy of control, and why you should incorporate it into you life by using examples of how it changed my life.

number 3 representing the trichotomy of control

Photo by Tony Hand


Stoicism and the Trichotomy of Control

Stoicism is a school of philosophical thought. Think of it this way: just like there are religions with different beliefs, there are schools of philosophical thought with different beliefs. Those who practice stoicism believe in the principles of stoicism similarly to how those who practice religion believe in the principles of the religion they associate with.

Stoicism dates back to 300 BCE. Most of us have probably heard of Marcus Aurelius. American presidents like Theodore “Teddy” Rosevelt were also known for reading stoicism.

One stoic principle is called the dichotomy of control. It explains that we should view life happenings by: what we can and what we can’t control. A professor of Philosophy, William B. Irvine has recently added a third level to dichotomy as outlined in his book, “A Guide to the Good Life.”

Photo by Tim Mossholder

Now There Are Three

In his book Irvine identifies control in 3 categories:

  1. “Things over which we have complete control (such as the goals we set for ourselves)
  2. Things over which we have no control at all (such as when the sun rises)
  3. Things over which we have some but not complete control (such as the outcome of a game or match)” (Irvine)

Irvine’s trichotomy is an updated form of the dichotomy of control practiced in stoicism, which was subsequently rebranded as the serenity prayer in Catholicism.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity Prayer (people fight over who wrote it 🤷‍♀️ )

My Practice of the Trichotomy of Control

Irvine’s trichotomy REALLY resonated with me. So, like any really cool person would do, I decided to experiment—on myself. Little did I know, this experiment was going to change my life.

For the next few weeks I kept the trichotomy at the forefront of my mind. I’d break my thinking and interpretation of situations into 3 categories: what I can, can’t, and can somewhat control.


I woke up late and missed a training session at the gym. Hating to be late, waste my trainers time and miss a session I felt frazzled. Typically, this type of thing would ruin my day. I’d beat myself up over it, and I’d think about it on repeat. However, this time I threw the trichotomy at it:

  1. I can control: when I go to bed and I need to go to sleep earlier.
  2. I can’t control: the past, so no point in being upset. (Note: I explored my feelings here before reaching acceptance as to not reject my feelings.)
  3. I can somewhat control: how pissed my trainer is by saying sorry, sending him memes and gifs and telling him how handsome he is.
Photo by Kara Eads

The BIG One

I was a couple weeks into my trichotomy experiment and everything was going well. It was sometimes hard to fit everything into the trichotomy (namely seeing what I could somewhat control) but I made due.

And then something happened that changed my life forever: I decided to cut my hair. From mid-back length to pixie. AKA from really long to super short. Typically a big change like this makes an impact, but it wasn’t the hair cut that changed my life, it was the events after the haircut that did.

My short hair felt amazing, but I was feeling self conscious about my new look. I heard encouraging comments like: “New do, cool!” and “I love it, OMG”. I also heard negative comments like, “Don’t guys like girls with long hair,” and “Maybe you should have gotten a boyfriend first before cutting your hair.”

Before the trichotomy of control, I would have given that last statement the power to bring me down. Fortunately, I had the trichotomy at my whip. Instead of getting upset or defensive I simply replied: “I can’t control what guys like.”

It may seem like a small instance, or something not worthy of noting, but to me, it was a defining moment in my life. Instead of feeling upset about my hair and adding to my already shaky confidence, I didn’t let it bother me. I was confident. I felt powerful. I didn’t need external validation, and I didn’t let someone else’s negative words impact me.

Photo by The Lucky Neko

Inner Peace and Tranquility

For so long I worried about what others thought of me or how others perceived me. I would tell myself that I didn’t care… but I always did. Now my knowledge of the fact I can’t control what others think overpowered the fact that I cared what they thought. This type of mental freedom is amazingly empowering. It was like a huge weight has been lifted!

Witnessing first hand how effective it was to break down life situations into the trichotomy I decided to add it permanent to my thought process. It’s been two years since I started the trichotomy experiment, and it’s also been 2 years of me feeling less anxious, less depressed and more like myself.

Also, within those two years I heard some different kinds of comments. Comments from a friendly bartender who bought me a desert on the house and said it looks like I’m “living my best life”. A comment from a colleague who said, “you seem different, in a good way.”

I’ve also had someone tell me that they love how I don’t “give a fuck.” I corrected them: it’s not that I don’t give a fuck, it’s that I know I can’t control much of what I used to give a fuck about so now I just try my best! I mean, of course I want people to like me, and of course I want things to turn out well, but there’s only so much I can do about that.

Photo by Elena G

Trichotomy in All Areas of Life

One thing I noticed while practicing my trichotomy experiment is that we are all encouraged to worry by essentially every facet of society. (Worrying is suffering so basically we are encouraged to suffer—ouch).

This happened recently with the 2020 election. It was an important elections and there was a lot on the line. Emotions were high. News reports added to the anxiety with their barrage of “what if” and doomsday articles.

While some were watching live streams, living in a web of anxiety and checking the numbers 24/7, I was chillin in my house, watching Gilmore Girls and just genuinely living my best life. People would try to suck me into political “what if” conversations but I had nothing to contribute.

Some would misinterpreted this as ignorance, or as me being lax about politics. When really it was that they were trying to connect over communal suffering, and my focus is on tranquility. I understand the issues, and I voted (mail-in vote in PA baby!). While the votes are being counted there’s nothing I can do, and worrying would just make me miserable.

RELATED ARTICLE: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life

Photo by Aaron Burden

Follow Trichotomy of Control in your life

When we add the trichotomy into our thought process, and characterize things as what we can, can’t and can somewhat control, we remove a lot of anxiety from our life. It also helps us build self-compassion and relieve anxiety over past mistakes.

Adding the trichotomy to my life was just one of the pieces that fit into the puzzle of me trying to better my life…but it’s a damn important one. I cordially invite you to test out the trichotomy of control in your life.

You can start now! Pick something that you are currently worried about. Divide the situation into the three categories of what you can, can’t and can somewhat control. It may take some time to stick, but with some practice and repetition you’ll get there, and it’s worth it!

How are you going to add the trichotomy in your life?

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