How to Lose Control
The need to control everything is actually a massive waste of energy
About a year ago, a therapist asked me about a serious eating disorder I had as a teenager. “Why do you think an eating disorder manifested at that time in your life?”
I perked up in my chair, ready to respond. “Control,” I answered, promptly.
“Yes.” She seemed impressed that I had already uncovered that mystery. “Eating disorders can often be about control or a need to regain control.” We moved on.
That manifestation of a need for control — disordered eating — has mostly passed. I eat when I’m hungry; I’ll order anything off a menu. I spent many years shapeshifting my eating disorder into various vegan, vegetarian or grain-free diets. Full disclosure, I used veganism as a way to carry on with that thread of control, and I was informed that this is an incredibly common jump as a more acceptable form of disordered eating for those with a proclivity. (This is only my experience. I still fully believe that vegan and vegetarian diets support the environment in profound ways, and that the majority of people who follow them have no connection to disordered eating. But some do. I had to admit to myself that I don’t care about chickens, except for the way they taste deep fried.) The truth is, I feel like I don’t even have time for an eating disorder right now.
My need for control has not really dissipated. It just materialized in new ways.
I have three young children and am a perpetual graduate student. I’m currently in my fourth year of grad school — I spent three getting my Master’s in literature at UNC Charlotte, and I’m currently working on my MFA at NC State University. I love school; it’s where I’m happy. I don’t imagine that everyone reading this is working on a second Master’s degree in their mid-thirties with three kids. But I do believe that many of you are busy — working, perhaps raising kids, perhaps navigating complicated relationships. Essentially, a busy life is a busy life, whether one is in the midst of writing a novel or preparing for an important meeting or folding their thirteenth load of laundry.
After that exchange with my therapist, my prepared response, and how quickly we moved on, I spent months (up until today, while I write this article), thinking about how my need for control has not really dissipated. It merely found new avenues of materialization through raising small children, attending graduate school, intensely focusing on personal growth (looking at you Brené), working on my marriage and other relationships. Essentially, through that interaction, I realized how my need for control had permeated every aspect of my life.
There is really no good ending for an insistent need for control.
And what did this look like? It’s easiest (least personal and least embarrassing) to look at how perfectionism and the need for control at school wasted hours (okay, days) of my life. For example, I might spend several days writing a small, two-page paper. I spent an entire summer creating a course schedule for a composition course that I taught. Hours and hours taking notes, organizing, scaffolding. When we came for orientation right before the semester started, another new teacher mentioned how he had not put his schedule together yet but was planning on it later that week. Do I believe my work reflects the time I take on it? No, I really don’t. As a matter of fact, I often know that it doesn’t. Or at the very least, I get the same grades as other graduate students and the semester went very well for all my fellow TAs, whether they spent hundreds of hours on their course schedule or not. Everything must be perfect, organized, worked out and finished a week before the due date. Does this sound familiar to you? All this to say, avid perfectionism and obsession over work (who’s been there? Who is there?) was not actually dedication or commitment — it was control.
Take the example above and apply it to relationships. Outbursts at not being heeded immediately by my children, insistent text messages when not being responded to by my husband or my sister. As you can imagine, there is really no good ending for an insistent need for control.
It goes without saying that some level of care, organization, and focus in all aspects of life is worthwhile. As long as there is balance, it’s beneficial for kids to feel that their parents are “in control” of the household, the schedule, themselves. I’m not advocating for a total loss of control here, but more of an awareness, a release. It helped to be able to talk to therapists, close friends, and family about where this need for control may have birthed. (For me, multiple divorces, multiple moves, particularly difficult relationships, any lack of vision for my future — I had no intention to go to college until I was, essentially, coerced. Also, certainly that 90s beauty standard — the waifiest of waif.) For those of you who seek control in small and ultimately unfruitful areas of your life, would it be worthwhile for you to confront your own past and see where your need for control was born?
Emotional control is actually a massive waste of time and energy.
In the end (it’s not actually the end, more like the middle), a growing awareness around my need for control has helped me reflect on how it affected interactions with my family. For example, instead of a hug goodnight, I might have looked at a clock and panicked. “It’s 8:30,” I would say, between clenched teeth, “We need to be in bed now, now, NOW.” I might see a full ashtray in the backyard and text my husband (perpetually traveling for work) and complain about how I now had to throw them away, wash the ashtray, and sage the backyard (okay, maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but I probably would). And why? Does it matter if the kids get to bed three minutes later? If cigarette butts sit in an ashtray for a few days? No. It really doesn’t. What mattered was my need to control my environment, to control the schedule, to control.
As it turns out, emotional control is actually a massive waste of time and energy. A need for control always switched the focus from the task, whatever it was, to me, my need to corral the moment. Now, I might be able to read an assignment prompt and set it down for a few weeks, examining it closer to the due date, in order to spend more time taking baths or walking in the woods or reading to my kids —actually enjoying life without the constraint of constant control.
When I get that impulse to control, to clench my teeth and harness my kids, to grab my phone and send a barrage of texts, I stop and check in with my body. Every time, my hands are closed into a fist, my chest feels tightly wound. This alone has been such a relief, a moment of space between who I used to be and who I want to be. Ultimately, I believe that the surrender of control in the form of perfectionism at work, through strict parenting, or as overbearing wife is an unburdening — a massive relief and a letting go of what was, in most ways, a lie to begin with. I would just ask those of you who relate to this, how does control manifest in your body? Has it served you well all these years? What would it mean to you to relinquish your need for control?
I’m here. I’ve been through it (okay, I’m going through it). I’m telling you that it feels good. Maybe just try it, maybe just for today.