Trying to Control the Impossible – Teenagers
Last September was one of the worst of my life (the worst-ever September was 2013, but that’s a completely different story for another time that I promise to share in a future newsletter). My daughter came back from her first overnight camp experience, and the first true sense of homesickness opened the door to the cage she keeps the anxiety monster locked up in. School started and a big overnight graduation trip loomed, creating thoughts that the homesickness would re-emerge and be unbearable.
What ensued was a month of complete overwhelm for me, in large part because I spent all of that September trying to fix my child’s fear and pain because I didn’t realize that I was trying to control the impossible in vain. We talked about it endlessly. I missed work to help calm her nerves. I took her to school and walked her up to her class on the third floor. And I took her to our family therapist. I gave her homeopathic remedies in consultation with our family friend and homeopath. We drew pictures, made crafts, but as much as I tuned in, I was doing it from the white knuckle need to stop the anxiety, rather than just allowing it to be and pass.
Reframing the Problem
What I finally realized is that I was the problem. That by trying to fix my child’s fears, thinking I could somehow love it away, I was giving that fear attention. And there’s nothing that feeds fear and anxiety faster than attention. Her anxiety was a cue for mine to kick up its heels. It’s a tricky one, because most choices in life stem from a place of love or a place of fear.
With kids (or other dear people we love) there’s a weird cocktail of the two. Our fear stems from a place of love, or so we think. It feels like what a “good parent” would do. In actuality, the root of the fear has to do with trying to control what we cannot. We are not rooted in the present moment, we are trying to control the thoughts, feelings or actions of someone else. When we are feeding that frightened part of ourselves, we are letting negative thoughts take over. “Oh no,” I thought, “My child will be in this dark place forever and I’m not doing enough to fix it.” I needed it to go away, because it scared me too, because I just needed to get to work or answer an email or just take an hour for some rest in the form of a Netflix show. I ran from discomfort.
“I am not going next year!” she exclaimed in defiance. But I’d already paid for the next year to get the discount! If I gave in to her demands, I’d be validating her fears. But how to persist without being a dictator?
Possibility and Abundance
Since I began coaching almost exactly a year ago, I’ve been playing with the idea that one should operate from their best, future self. From a place of possibility, rather than a place of lack. It’s easier to stay out of the scary place from this vantage point. From a mental higher ground I have the clarity to separate facts from feelings. I’ve been trying to bring this idea into our household conversations, too. What is a circumstance and what is just a jumble of thoughts that we are feeding into? What stations are we tuning into in our brains? Can we change the station? Turn up the volume on the better station?
I assured her that she would indeed be homesick again. That was a given. But did that have to be a bad thing? Could that not be a cloud in her calm blue sky that would pass eventually? She also knew a lot of the kids and they would likely share a cabin. Wasn’t it cool to meet people she would not ordinarily meet through school or extracurriculars? We made a list. The pros outweighed the cons. We learned to meditate to calm ourselves, to sit with the fear and observe instead of judge when it popped up. I kept catching my brain trying to control the impossible but I tried not to react when the “I changed my mind, I can’t go” protests would crop up occasionally. I reminded her that being scared was OK, that being brave meant doing it anyway, because maybe, just maybe, she couldn’t predict what was going to happen and it would be SUPER FUN!
Resilience Won Only Once I Let Go
So semi-reluctantly, but determined to succeed, she went to camp a second time. By the end of the first week, I had barely heard from my offspring. She’d even celebrated a birthday while away! All the work we’d done over the past year to build resilience and make going to camp non-negotiable paid off. When I arrived to pick her up, it was clear we could celebrate. She played a munchkin in their production of The Wizard of Oz. She had multitudes of friends. My daughter knew her way around and acted like she owned the place.
Fast forward to the end of the first week of school. Snuggling my kid in her new big kid bed, exhausted but happy after her first week of middle school, she turned to me and said, “Remember last year at this time? When I was crying every day and so scared to go to school and be away from you?” I nodded with a half-knowing smile on my face. “I haven’t done that once this year!” We high-fived.
Last week I talked about the “Trying to Try” Loop that I frequently see holding people back. Along those lines, I’m noticing people trying to control the impossible. Basically, this is when someone tries to control as many little things as possible in order to force an outcome that they ultimately have no control over… and this results in them feeling even more out of control. Notice the word “force” in there? That’s the important part. Of course our actions influence things all the time, but, equally important are our intentions, because they will deeply influence how we perform the actions.
To continue to use Nadine’s personal life as an example… Nadine, when you tried to”fix” your kid’s feelings because you were anxious if she was anxious, this fed her anxiety. This is the equivalent of yelling at someone to “JUST CALM DOWN”. It doesn’t work, it just feeds it. Once you could support her with the simple intention of helping her, without needing her to be “fixed” for your own mental calm, you found solutions. And side note – Way to go! I saw how hard you worked to get there, this stuff is so much easier in theory than it is in practice.
Organizing to Feel in Control
And me? I sometimes fall into trying to control the impossible when I feel a bit overwhelmed, and I will start organizing things, planning, making schedules, cleaning… all to feel a momentary sense of control. This might sound great to some of you, but it isn’t actually useful planning, I’m already fairly organized, and my place might not even really need cleaning when I do this. The time would be way better spent doing whatever I may be avoiding. I notice that the more I let myself worry and avoid something, the more I want to control all of the “stuff” around me (which unfortunately may sometimes include the actions of those who live with me… but he is extra impossible to control).
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