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The Illusion of Control

Yesterday in class, the therapists asked if there was anyone there who felt like they had an excessive need for control.  My hand shot up---stayed up---and started to wave around.  It was a bit like it wasn't attached to me.  I didn't even look up from what I was doing. 

I expected that there were a few of us since perfectionism and control go hand in hand, and we were all self-confessed perfectionistas to some degree.  
Oddly enough (read...embarrassingly enough), when I looked up, it was just me.  (Wacky, inflatable, arm waving, tube man!  Wacky, inflatable, arm waving, tube man!) 
"That's it?  Just one person?  Okay--tell us what it is like, what you think about as someone who wants that much control."
It poured out of me:

Well, I plan things. So like, I plan my day, dinner, what I have to do, what needs to get done.  I am not a list person---I know people who are--and swear by them.  But I plan out how I expect things to go---and I do whatever I can in advance to ensure the plan will go smoothly.  So when it doesn't, like bad traffic or long lines---I get incredibly anxious because I am losing control of the situation.  And no one else can plan it. It has to be me.  I need to know where the exits are. I need to be able to build into my plan and escape strategy.  If that means taking two cars so I know I can leave. Or if we are going somewhere to visit.  I want to lay out exactly what time we are leaving. If we go past that time, I get anxious again because things are not going according to the sometimes seldom shared, always inflexible, plans in my head.  One thing goes off---it causes a domino effect and the rest of my day or night is ruined.
The cruise we went on a couple of years ago.  I researched the ports, assessed ALL the day trip options, brought a million clothes because everything had to be perfect!  I also brought along all my medications and my nebulizer in an attempt to manage any illness I got while away. That is a huge fear of mine.  Going somewhere and getting sick!  We don't travel much. It hasn't been a priority for us, so when we do go somewhere, and spend that kind of money, I want to know how to get the best out of the trip.  That is the other part.  Because I can't control a lot of things, we often do nothing.  If I don't know what might happen, I would rather not go at all....well unless it was for work, then I could go because that is out of my control.  But not just for me....I couldn't go anywhere for me...I would feel too guilty spending that kind of money on myself.
Woah...that was a lot of stuff packed into one purge.  I felt like I was talking really fast.  My breathing had become a bit shallow and my shoulders were up near my ears.  Felt a bit like a control freak out of control...
"Ok.  So one of the reasons people want to control situations may have to do with some sort of trauma that happened to them early in life."
Hmmm. That didn't sound like me.
"It could be a single event --like a death or a divorce. Or it could be something that happened over time, like moving a lot as a kid, abuse, bullying, or having a parent who had an addiction that you witnessed; like alcoholism or drug abuse or even gambling."

Ok, now I got it.  Growing up, I witnessed a lot of adults under the influence of
alcohol.  What I saw were people out of control; who fell; who babbled; who couldn't get up out of their chair; who said stupid things and made no sense; who drove impaired.  When you are a kid and you see this in people close to you--people you respect and are supposed to be taking care of is scary. I felt abandoned, alone, unworthy, angry.  So as an adult, you try to control your environment in an attempt to avoid the scary feeling.  You try to control things, and in most cases, you only feel more OUT of control.  However much I would like to control traffic, lines at the store, my children, the Spouse, available parking spaces, my car, people at work, the WEATHER---I can't so I feel anxious---almost all the time.

my table--right now
My house, on the other hand, is a controlled environment.  And while I am a perfectionista control freak---don't confuse that with neat.  My house is ordered chaos.  Half eaten chocolate bar in paper on the dining room table along with some change. My purse, a scarf, the remote for the fireplace, some papers, jewelry I took off last night, a candle, some light up thing for our not yet created jack-o'-lantern .....   And any drawer you open will likely result in an avalanche of various school work, magazines, string, gum and playing cards.  It is clean--just untidy. 
But here, I CAN have chaos---no one will judge me, I know it is my mess, but here I feel like chaos is ok.  I can choose to clean it or not, and usually attack the clutter in a frenzied attempt to get that sense of order back.  Sort of a "See what I can do?  See the control I have? Ba-ha-ha-ha-ha!" It is all an illusion.  Back to Princess Leia on the death star.  The more control you try to have, the more it slips through your fingers. (I am convinced everything in life can have a Star Wars, Friends or Seinfeld connection).
Outside, in the world I live in, I have to recognize that problems happen.  This was the most profound thing I learned in the Adult Day Treatment Program. Sounds simple, but if you accept the principle that problems happen---you can reset your expectations.  I don't mean think that everything is doom and gloom and problems ALWAYS happen.  But problems are normal....they happen...
So if I can accept that problems happen, I can leave my house with a plan for my errands, my day, my weekend, my week, my vacation but leave room in my plan for unexpected detours.  If I can take a deep breath when something goes wrong and recognize that THIS IS NORMAL.  I can stop punishing myself for not planning this properly, exactly right, perfectly....  All of a sudden, I can breathe better.  I frown less.  I tap my foot to music while I wait in line, I accept I will have to buy a new hairdryer because I am away from home and forgot mine.
Now I am not saying I am going to be able to do this every time.  Stress is also a normal part of life and can motivate us to get things done. So if traffic prevents me from getting to an appointment on time, I am going to be feeling the stress...but I can also recognize...I am usually on time for all my commitments.  I value being on time. However, today is not working for me.  I will explain when I get there.  Everyone has had to deal with traffic.  It is not a big deal. 
Practice, practice, practice.
I am...... Work in Progress


  1. This is such a good lesson to teach our children too - how to accept and adapt to a situation that changes. It's not about losing control, rather adapting to change in a healthy way.

  2. Oh man yeah! Going with the flow....nothing is a disaster...all things are fixed with I'm sorry or another try or being ok with it. I fear my oldest will have to learn this the hard way....he is hardwired much like me and doesn't like when he doesn't know what is going on or when things go outside "the plan". I can only hope I deliver a more relaxed message to my youngest. Thanks for reminding me that what we learn along the way...we also teach.


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