Got control?

Negative stress, my husband informed me, comes from the feeling of not having control. Yeah, that makes sense, I agreed with him.
It’s a straightforward insight and yet I hadn’t heard it put in such clear terms before. I’ve held onto that thought ever since.

I began observing myself in situations where I became impatient, annoyed or disengaged and discovered distinct patterns. In a short time it became readily apparent that when I felt helpless, at someone else’s mercy, or dependent on an outcome over which I felt I had no say, those negative emotions were almost certain to surface and persist. I found many more examples at home with family than at work which helped me recognize that the real work I needed to do was, above all, on myself.

So I learned to pay closer attention to my sense of control in various situations. Below are some of the things I do to regain control when I am on the verge of losing it or have already lost it. See if any of these make sense to you:

1. I go exercise.
If I can get out on my own, an extended walk helps me re-establish some degree of equilibrium. Just moving, thinking and being outside works wonders. If I don’t have the luxury of going solo, I just get into a space and do some sit-ups, push-ups or sun salutes. The point is, it doesn’t have to be much. I don’t need to change clothes. Simply straining myself a little shifts the energy in my body from overpowered to empowered.

2. I do a little housework.
My husband is an excellent housekeeper and does a lot of the stuff that I tend to avoid. Tackling a small duty, however, makes a positive difference. Folding and storing a load of laundry, sweeping the floor, or washing some dishes by hand. These are all tasks where I can see the results and I feel responsible.

3. I do my hair.
This may sound funny but it works. Doing my hair involves some effort. While I am fond of my naturally wavy-kinky tresses and the versatility of style I enjoy, washing, combing and styling my hair – typically in some form of braid or twist – takes some time and a bit of forearm strength and finger dexterity. Left to its own devices, my hair is wild and dense. Taming it on its own terms into neat side twists or multiple playful braids without the aid of a chemical relaxer becomes a source of stubborn pride and nice visual metaphor for the order I am striving to create and maintain.

4. I prepare myself a healthy meal.
A couple of years ago I undertook the Metabolic Balance program to work on improving my overall nutrition. Strict adherence in the beginning brought great results but after about a half year of seriously disciplined eating habits, I gradually let up and some of my less favorable habits snuck back in. Nevertheless, the basic principles (moderate portions of protein and veggies, minimal carbs, plus a daily apple) are still with me and have had a positive influence on my food intake. So when I prepare one such meal, I usually steam chicken with broccoli seasoned with some ginger, lemon, salt and pepper and then add a couple of cherry tomatoes for color. A tall glass of water to wash it all down and I feel like I have just won the discipline trophy of the year.

5. I write.
Journaling more than two or three times per month is often just enough to remind me that I have a valuable outlet that I may be neglecting. Giving my funk a name, address and telephone number lets me take ownership of my situation in a different and more balanced way. My journal doesn’t argue with me the way my head does. That makes writing a gift that keeps on giving. The more regularly I write, the more familiar I become with my mental and emotional neighborhood, the better I can cope with all manner of crises in my neighborhood and beyond.

Not quite 6. Time out.
I would love to be able to say that I find a quiet corner and go meditate but that is not the reality. When push comes to shove, I may have to leave the room quickly and go sulk for a time. While it may seem childish, it is also sometimes what I need to do before I can attempt a course correction. This type of time out is the ultimate signal that unless I claim that time and space for myself right then and there, the results are likely to be worse rather than better.

This last point is the one I waffled about including. It is not the strategy I am proud of or would recommend. Nevertheless, it is one of the things that I do when it feels like the battle for control is lost, if only briefly.

My primary finding here is that one of the best tools we have for recognizing control is understanding how we feel and behave when it is missing. Identifying these six ways I try to restore or boost my sense of self-control moves me that much closer to growing a resource which can quickly become scarce when the pressure is on and I need it most.

What do you do to manage and negotiate your sense of control? Please share. I would like to hear your thoughts.

Staying in the Lines: A Struggle and A Win

The Sunday Challenge
The Sunday Challenge

Last weekend my 6 year old and I completed this color by numbers picture together.  After we finished coloring the last couple of spaces, we celebrated with a high five and a good hug.  And we talked.

We talked about what a struggle it had been at the outset. He shed a lot of tears at the beginning because he was having trouble staying inside the lines. It frustrated him beyond belief that a stray stroke of red had infiltrated a space dedicated solely for yellow. In fact, for a period it paralyzed him. He would not continue. He insisted that I do it instead. He cried some more. He walked away.

Later in the day he came back to it. He experimented with using an eraser. Within moments he was back in the game. And this time I offered to join him. He assigned me to color in the blue spaces while he took care of red. What a transformation! For both of us! I got off my “You’re a big boy, you can do this on your own” trip and sat down and found my own challenges trying to stay inside the lines. He saw that my work was not perfect and said, “That’s OK, Mom.” This side-by-side, shared coloring space became a brief but profound oasis of calm – a much needed respite from our previously charged back and forth.

The incident raised some questions in my mind. What makes perfection so compelling a goal? What are the risks of going outside the lines by accident? What about doing it on purpose? What’s the reward for sticking to the rules and coloring inside the lines?

Our reward was the satisfaction of seeing the big picture that was revealed after coloring all those individual spaces. We also experienced the joy of having overcome a struggle to arrive at this result. I realize that I have a tendency to advocate for an “outside the lines” approach to many topics and this time I see that resisting that default setting actually helped me build a bridge to my son’s initial space of disappointment and inadequacy. By sticking to the task and the rules, cooperating and celebrating we created a far richer piece of family artwork.