Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, January 14, 2011

Freaking Out About Control

It's Friday evening, and I want to talk about control.  Briefly.  Because it's Friday evening.  The end of another of too many days lately that have spun out of my control.

One of the valuable pieces of information that I picked up in reading Chip Heath and his brother Dan's book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard is that self-control is exhaustible.  And exhausting.  And that many of us are living beyond our means in this respect, trying to deal with powerful emotions, eliminate bad habits, govern behavioral impulses, and keep our creaky little vehicles of self on the road.  And given this habitual deficit spending, we may run out of the steam necessary to power the changes we desire.

So I am left wondering if the self-improvement enterprise in which I am engaged, and of which this blog is a chronicle, is such a good idea after all.  Am I becoming a control freak?

As this appellation is popularly applied, it tends to refer to people whose need to control others makes relationships difficult, at home and at work.  And while I admit that my desire to determine how things are done and to achieve desired outcomes does sometime slop over onto the people around me, for the most part I am the primary victim of these tendencies.  If I am a control freak, I am mainly a self-control freak.  I spend a lot of time bossing myself around, trying to manipulate my own feelings and behavior, and reflecting on the process.  And I'm not too nice about it, either.  

The main symptom of this supposed disorder, given my flagging energy, is a chronic sense of dissatisfaction and failure when circumstances and results--and particularly my own efforts--fall short of my standards.  And even when I do muster the strength to make things happen, I am plagued by the constant tension involved in straining against the grain of uncontrollability, and in waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it so often, and so predictably does.

Maybe my whole campaign to "put things to bed" suffers from too much of a good thing.  Maybe I shouldn't be trying to fix so many things at once.  And maybe my personal clutch is worn from careening over the bumpy back roads for years, with little regard for the long haul and the wear and tear on my "controls."  I am not adept, even at this late date, at negotiating the various gears at my disposal, and at figuring out when it may be useless to attempt to apply them. 

Psychologists treat the urge for control variously as neurosis, as a source of stress, as a reaction to stress, and as a basic human tendency.  It seems reasonable to assess the flexibility with which we seek control in evaluating the healthfulness of this pursuit.  It is probably best not to try to control everything, nor to insist on too great a degree of control in any specific area of our lives.  

By this measure, I could stand to lay-the-hell-back.

I have only a few hours of wakefulness left in this day, and I am goading myself to hit the bike, resting in its trainer stand in my basement study; to write what I laughingly call "Morning Pages;" to finish reading one of the three books whose ends I am nearing; to do the evening dishes; to meditate; and to set the alarm and hit the sheets in time to get up for an early Saturday morning Martin Luther King event.  Oh, and to try to see some of a basketball game with my son. Enough, already?

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