If your ship hasn’t come in, swim out to it. ~ Johnathan Winters
Posts Tagged ‘control’
PERFECTIONISM : a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable (Merriam-Webster)
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, notions of perfect or imperfect are simply constructs of the mind created by our thoughts. Even so, striving to be perfect is a dangerous dance that can render our lives constricted and lonely, and rob us of all kinds of opportunities.
As I work with clients, I’m repeatedly struck by how harshly we can treat ourselves, and how expectations of perfectionism impose tremendous limitations on our ability to live healthy and happy lives. This is because shame is almost always the sister of perfection. Anxiety, fear of loss of control, procrastination, and depression are close cousins waiting in the wings. Often the self-imposed demand to “be the best I can be” is a way to compensate for traumatic early life experiences that damaged our self esteem and left us with a sense of being unacceptable for who we are. Thus, pursuit of perfection is most often rooted in feelings of inadequacy that may be coupled with denial of anger, sadness, fear and a desperate need to avoid rejection at all costs. Striving to be perfect can threaten our mental and physical health and even take our life if we become consumed with having the perfect body, being the perfect student, the perfect wife/husband, son/daughter …
Our culture fuels a paradigm of achievement, productivity, and goal attainment and the upshot is that we can easily lose perspective on what it means to live well. We become more absorbed with our children’s grades than by their enthusiasm for learning and immerse ourselves in measuring our looks, our waists, our pocketbooks, our paychecks, our academic and professional accomplishments. Ironically, in the excessive amount of time spent judging ourselves for our perceived shortcomings, we miss the splendor and magic of the moment. We disconnect from living—humans doing as opposed to humans being. And when we’re not present centered, we can’t authentically connect with others.
My mother used to tell me, “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.” While I know she intended well and was urging me to adopt high standards, I had the good sense to replace that phrase a long time ago and adopt a kinder mantra. “Progress not Perfection” is a saying I learned from working in the recovery community. There’s freedom and encouragement in this approach to living that spurs me on to try new things, set realistic goals, strive with balance, and focus on the experience, not the outcome.
Life is messy and relationships are messy, and that’s okay. The truth is we’re on a fantastic journey that is about exploring, unfolding, and expanding our minds. Our spiritual and psychological growth depends on making mistakes. Frustration and failure are really our friends, not our enemies. They stimulate perseverance, patience, compassion for others, and creativity. To be the best we can be, paradoxically, requires that we choose to relinquish the limitations of self- imposed demands, surrender to the process of life, and fly free.
“What I am is good enough, if I would only be it openly.” ~ Carl Rogers
Recommended reading on perfectionism: When Perfect isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism. Martin Antony, PhD
I have to admit it: I am a recovering control freak.
Of course there are degrees of this freakiness but if one is anywhere on the continuum, it’s time to take a hard look at your behavior, as I did, and understand how it might be hurting rather than helping the child or teenager you love with all your heart. As a provider of counseling and psychotherapy, and especially as a mother, I wrestled for a long time trying to define the word “control” and examine my parenting style to see if it characterized my interactions with my children. Once I began to really understand the devious nature of control, I identified it and went to work on understanding its origin and making changes to my parenting approach.
Controlling can take many forms and most of us shudder at the idea that we would embody this characteristic. We may justify our actions by saying, “but I would do anything for my child,” “I want to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble, “I want her to be more responsible.” Some examples of control may include:
– Offering an abundance of unsolicited “advice” that we think is helpful. This often entails phrases, such as, “you need to …” and “you should …”
– Reminding our children repeatedly to do their homework, chores, tidy their room, eat, not eat, etc.
– Modeling high standards of achievement with the expectation that our kids will attain those standards
– Expecting our children to conform to our cultural notion of politeness, maturity, style of dress
– Having ideas of what is “the right way” to do something—and imposing that on our child
– Expecting our children to suppress their emotion and “stop making a big deal about it,” “get over it,” or “grow up”
– Predominantly praising our children for things that are meaningful to us, e.g. good grades, winning the competition, making the swim team
The paradox here is that parents who use a lot of control tactics are most often responding to an inner sense of anxiety or powerlessness they experienced as children. For example, if a woman, in her own childhood, was praised only when she came home with good grades or was first on the track team, it may be that she learned (consciously or unconsciously) to equate love and acceptance with accomplishment. Thus, getting a child to behave in a certain way may alleviate anxiety or powerlessness parents experienced in their own childhoods—bringing peace of mind, a sense of order and predictability, and often the external recognition they craved as children.
The problem with control is in the insidious messages it sends to a child or young adult: I don’t believe you can be responsible for yourself; you don’t make wise choices; you need me to take care of you. The irony is that our child learns the very powerlessness we ourselves experienced as children, and by which we are still bound.
Isn’t control synonymous with parenting?
The answer is, ‘no.” A parent’s role is to guide, develop, and educate a child so he or she transitions into an adult who is capable of fully functioning in the world and holds him/herself accountable for his/her choices. This is no simple feat, to be sure, and the subject has been worthy of many books. Establishing firm structure, while respecting, inviting, validating, and gently challenging our children are the keys to healthy parenting, as is admitting mistakes. Letting go of control may mean allowing your child to mess things up or fail, both of which, paradoxically, will stand him/her in good stead on the road of life.
If you feel what you’ve read so far resonates for you as a parent, don’t feel hopeless, helpless, or that you have failed your child. It’s never too late to change the patterns of our relating with those we love. Reflect on your own childhood, attempt to identify aspects of controlling behavior, and consider if counseling may be helpful.
Recommended reading on parenting: The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. By John Gottman, Ph.D.
To read about parenting teenagers, specifically, please see my blog, titled: A Few Tips for Surviving Teenage Turbulence.