All of the Things I Can't Control
One of the things I think an artist has to learn is to let go of the idea that she or he is in control of the outcome of a piece of art. For some, that lack of control is what is exciting about creating art. For others (Hello! Hi, there!) it is the scariest thing we could imagine. And often, we have to learn this lesson in both life and art. Here is my story:
The Illusion of Control
Since I chose "real" as my word for 2018, it kind of floats in the back of my mind as I go through my days. When I think about what to write about here, I think about what relates to being real. This past weekend was a good one, but I woke up Monday morning with a gnawing sense of anxiety and helplessness I couldn't explain. In the past, I would let those feelings fester and grow. They would come out later, maybe hours, maybe days later. When they did, it wouldn't be a good thing. It would come as irritation, frustration and a restless sense of things "not being right."
Lately, I've been able to recognize this pattern before it's gotten to the "days of feeling shitty for unexplained reasons" stage. This time, instead of letting all those feelings roam around and breathe fire on my life, I talked about it with someone, and I realized what was at the bottom of those feelings: a sense that somewhere in my life, I wasn't in control.
This is a familiar thing for me. And, according to Psychology Today, in a blog post talking about the effects of controlling behavior on relationships, it's a learned coping mechanism often brought on by feelings of anxiety that, if not given a way to deal with as kids, can have lasting effects:
"How does a person become controlling? It is basically a method of coping with the anxiety they feel beginning very early in life. Some had parents who couldn't quite fulfill their role as strong caregivers and seemed to be weak or incapable.
A child in this situation, as early as age 3, may begin to prop up their parents and become a little adult very early on. If the stress continues, fear increases and the use of attempts to control what they can, becomes compulsive and unconscious. It is more likely to happen with children who are helpers, and/or leaders by nature, often first born boys or girls feel proud of themselves for helping and it is encouraged or reinforced by parents and other influential adults. They may also have a tendency toward anxiety, worry and perfectionism which will only make it worse."
Ahh, control. And, just like most things in life come in cycles, my need to be in control of something, anything, came out with my own child.
Parenting Teaches Us the Things We Need to Learn Most
For three years of my daughter's life, I was a single parent.
During that time, I did a lot of things I would never do now that she's twelve and not elementary-school-aged. Our world had been blown apart by my divorce from her father, and I thought it was my job to make our lives as normal, predictable, and safe as I could.
I gave her an ironclad bedtime, and put myself in charge of policing her food, snacks, activities, learning, and social life.
I wasn't a bad mom, far from it.
I was intensely devoted to being a good mom. My daughter loved me, that much I knew.
But since I tried to control most aspects of her life just so we could get from breakfast to bedtime unscathed, she didn't have a whole lot of autonomy. I didn't know how to be consistently firm and supportive of her good moods and her bad ones, so I vacillated between us acting like two sisters and me laying the hammer down.
I so desperately wanted to control the things I could control, because so much control had been taken from us when my ex-husband left and our whole life was thrown into chaos.
I thought I could control what we did and how we did those things so that the awful scars from our broken lives wouldn't be reopened.
I prided myself on being a "Mom," not a best friend, but I was fooling myself. I didn't realize that when I tried so hard to direct and control everything, I exhausted myself to the point of not being able to handle situations that came up.
I would just give in to TV, dessert, all the activities she wanted to do, being her personal entertainment source, making sure she had "things" so she would know I cared about her, and other little mistakes because I was at the end of my patience and sanity.
I was sending her an inconsistent and dangerous message. She couldn't rely on me to be the consistent strong presence she was craving in all the turmoil of our lives because I was trying so hard to control all the little puzzle pieces I had.
I was totally unable to see the whole puzzle.
I was just randomly putting together pieces with no knowledge of the actual big picture I was supposed to be creating.
The Life Changing Magic of . . . an Outside Perspective
Everything changed in our lives, yet again, when I met someone, my now-fiancé. My daughter was seven years old. We had been on our own together since she was three. There were a lot of habits and practices in place.
Adding a new adult and four new children to the picture was a huge growth experience. In working to blend two families, seven different personalities, and two different adult perspectives on family and raising children, we had to do a lot of shifting of ideas, tactics and priorities.
In short, I had to give up much of the control I thought I had.
My new partner's philosophies on children were different from mine even though we saw eye to eye on what kind of children we wanted to be raising. Despite great resistance to his parenting ways in the beginning, I started to see, over time, that his ideas really worked.
He had to sell me on allowing the kids to have a TV in their bedroom for months, because I was strictly against the idea. He gently explained to me that there would be a period of time I was going to have to be uncomfortable with. They would want to watch TV a lot because it was "new," but that would eventually fade. Once that happened, with our help, they would essentially be able to monitor themselves. Plus, it would give us leverage when one of the kids misbehaved.
I didn't believe him. I wanted to control the TV times and how much they watched. But he asked me to trust him, and I grudgingly did.
He was right.
After a while, the TV wasn't new and exciting anymore. It was just something they could use, or not.
I knew for sure the philosophy he had tried to explain to me was working when my daughter, who had been so in awe of being able to watch TV before bed, asked me one night, "Mom, do I have to have the TV on? I would rather read my book and fall asleep in the dark."
Color me astounded.
It was the same with bedtime, another thing I had a huge need to control, because when I was a single parent, the time after Sophie's 8:30 bedtime was the only time I had to myself. I taught preschool during the day and had Sophie every night. Bedtime was NOT negotiable.
Until it was. Once again, Luke gently explained that if we instituted a "no bedtime" rule, the consequences would be uncomfortable for them - but would be determined by them. If one of the kids stayed up too late and had to drag themselves through school all day tired and worn out, they could never blame us for that, only themselves.
Plus, if they had a hard time getting up because they chose to stay up late, we would give that one child a bedtime for a specific length of time - while the others got to stay up as usual.
I was learning the beauty and effectiveness of letting the kids regulate themselves - experience for themselves the consequences of making the wrong choice. With no one to answer to but themselves.
It was and continues to be a huge eye opener for me. They're better able to make decisions and weigh the consequences of making one choice over the other. They're more independent and have a better understanding of how they need to operate in the real world, because we are not there making their decisions for them.
It takes a lot of unnecessary worry, anxiety, and stress off us, as parents.
Yet, I still struggle with an innate need to be in control of small, unimportant things.
In a lot of ways, I am in the same learning boat as my kids. I grew up thinking that controlling all the small things I could control would keep me safe from the big scary things in life I didn't know how to deal with. I made little safe barriers and rituals to protect myself from people who were hurting me instead of dealing with the issues or talking to someone about what was happening to me.
It turned me into an adult who had to learn the hard, hard way that the only thing on this planet I actually have control of is myself. I had to spend countless wasted hours and days trying to be in control of everything else and seeing firsthand that it never worked, ever.
Even today, I find myself doing it again, and I don't even realize it's happening until long after the damage is done.
What I Learned
Sometimes because we have our own little spot in this universe, we think it means we have control over it. And if you start to go down the dangerous path of thinking you can control your space, your time, your stuff, your life, the people in it, the people not in it, and every other damn thing that orbits your life, you come to a point where you realize . . .
You're full of shit.
I have to continually remind myself that I have absolutely no control over anything in my life outside of myself the way I think I do, because I was raised by example to think that things and people were controllable.
Since I had been the child being controlled, I never questioned it much. Until I saw as an adult how I was damaging my own daughter, doing what I thought was the right thing. Instead, I was forced to see that I was raising a child who felt helpless over anything in her life.
It was definitely not what I wanted to teach my daughter. So I had to change, grow, adapt. I had to give her some control.
Because I am just now, as an adult, dealing with a lot of things I should have dealt with many years ago, I am aware of my vicious learning circle. During the steady part of the cycle, I hum right along like I'm supposed to. But then, like a bike hitting a pebble, something will send me a little off course, and if other pebbles get in my way it can send me way off course. I get caught in a spiral of anxiety, worry and sadness, and suddenly I find myself back to my old tricks . . . desperately trying to be in control of as many little useless things as I can so I can feel like there is something in this world under my control.
It's why I have a love/hate relationship with cleaning. When I am anxious or worried, cleaning allows me to have a physical accomplishment quickly. It allows that ball of spiky needles in my chest to dissolve because I can point to the clean thing and say, "Well, at least I did that."
It's not control, but it feels like it.
But finally, slooowly, I'm realizing after many years of going through the control/no control cycle, that when I find myself frantically trying to control a bunch of stuff outside me, what's really happening is that I feel out of control inside me.
It's a huge realization for someone trapped in her own head for years who felt like she needed to maintain the outer appearace of cool, calm, and collected. Messy, broken, and scared wasn't allowed. It took me a long time to even admit to those things, much less allow them to exist.
It's not the end of the journey yet. I'm still in the middle of figuring all of this out. But I know it's starting to slowly seep in, because this morning I felt anxious, upset, and sad. I could feel it spiraling out. And then I talked about it. And now I'm writing about it.
And soon, I'll paint.
I'd love to hear from you! Is there something in your life you tried to control but couldn't? What was that experience like for you? Leave me a comment!