Control. It sounds like a good thing.
Self-control. I’ve got this under control. Control yourself.
For years, I had everything under control. I swore I did. Everything from family activities to how people were allowed to feel around me. Is some small detail unplanned? I’ll plan it. Someone has a problem? I’ll fix it, whether they want me to or not. Something needs to be done? I’ll take care of it. In fact, I’ll do it myself because that’s the only way it will get done right. Because only I know what the right way is.
See, everything under control.
This should feel good. My entire universe working according to my grand plan. Only it doesn’t feel good. It’s exhausting and it drives the people around me up a wall.
It’s also an illusion.
How Do I Fix This?
When I started reading about Asperger’s, one of the first things that “clicked” for me was why so much of my adult life was dominated by a need for control. I’m ill-equipped for a lot of aspects of life; at some point, control became my primary coping mechanism. Life was hard and confusing and scary. Being in control could fix that.
It doesn’t, of course. If you’ve struggled to maintain an illusion of control, you know what I mean. Control strains and eventually suffocates relationships. It leaves you huddled in a corner, defending a small patch of territory that feels sacred. The Scientist says that I latch onto the things that I see as mine, people included, and guard them. He says I need to possess things.
That’s hard to hear, but he’s right.
I’ve been that way for so long I don’t remember if I was ever not like that. But until I had that key bit of information about why control was so important to me, it was something that lurked in the shadows, feeding a quiet sense of shame.
Changing something that’s deeply ingrained on a subconscious level is hard. It happens in baby steps. When you’re in the middle of it, nothing is as clearly defined as hindsight makes it appear. Looking back, I can see that understanding the root cause of the problem was the first step.
Step two was accepting that it was a problem. I didn’t want to, at first. That meant admitting to myself that I’d hurt people so I could feel better. The hurt wasn’t intentional, but it was damaging all the same. As I got braver, I was able to start examining what was triggering my need for control and then apply what I was learning about how my brain works to come up with new coping strategies.
Control was an all-purpose strategy. I couldn’t just replace it with one new strategy. Instead, I had (and still have) to look at each situation and ask myself where is the urge to control this coming from? What will I need to feel safe or comfortable in this situation? How can that happen?
Sometimes there’s a simple answer, like planning breaks into a long day of socializing. If I know that I can take a timeout whenever I need one, the urge to control what everyone else is doing lessens. That was a big revelation for me: I can be in charge of me and everyone else is in charge of themselves.
The Big Leap
The hard part about “everyone else is in charge of themselves” is that it requires me to trust other people so I can purposefully let go. Letting go is hard. When I let go, anything could happen. Someone could load the dishwasher wrong. Someone could be five minutes late for an appointment.
Someone could be sad in a way that I can’t immediately fix.
What I’ve realized is that controlling all those little details was my way of avoiding other types of discomfort. Disorder is uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter if it’s spatial, temporal, or emotional, major or minor, I wanted no part of it and I was going to do something about it.
I’m slowly letting go of that need.
Sometimes, even though I recognize that I need to step back from my urge to control, I still feel a strong need to do something. Then I remind myself that I am doing something: I’m respecting someone else’s boundaries. I’m supporting them. I’m taking care of my needs rather than imposing that responsibility on another person.
Learning to manage my own internal distress is also making it easier for me to ask for what I need from others. My default internal cycle for many years was:
panic—-> lash out in a controlling way to make the panic stop
When I first decided I wanted to change, the best I could manage was:
panic ——-> question why I’m panicking ——-> who cares? ——-> lash out in a controlling way anyhow
With practice, my new internal cycle is becoming:
panic —-> question why I’m panicking —–> ask myself what I need to feel comfortable —-> take steps to make that happen, including asking for help from others
Ironically, the more I give up on trying to control all of the things and people around me, the less out of control I feel. And that really is a good thing.