The survival brain says that we need to be in control. Control means safety. Control means calling the shots. Control means that we can relax… but only just a bit. Don’t relax too much or you might lose control.
I had control issues. I still have control issues. But my control issues today are opposite from my control issues in the past.
Personal and Environmental Control
My old control issues were all about self-control and environmental control. I wanted to present a face to the world that was calm, collected, together, and otherwise stable. My goal was to compose the face I showed the world before stepping out and then not to let that face change. Call it my “game face” or maybe my “life face”. I know I was successful because friends said I was the “stable one”, “the calming influence”, “Steve the infinitely patient”. Ultimately, however, I was projecting a false self, not my authentic self.
I wanted to be in environments that I could control; this is why I naturally gravitated toward teaching, why I always preferred a party at my house to going out clubbing, and why I didn’t enjoy huge crowds. I never sought to control those around me (in fact, I loved the originality in my friends, loved ones, and students) but I wanted the space I inhabited to play by the rules… my rules. What a frightening way to live!
Messing with First Impressions
A colleague of mine once pointed out how I approached new business meetings. I arrived in the room, smiled, shook hands, and then sat down. I was quiet for several minutes but also clearly paying attention. After a while, I said something intelligent, insightful, witty, or sharp. Why is this a control issue? Well, I’m big and scary looking. People who know me well always agree on the first point and disagree on the second. But I’ve walked into enough rooms, public spaces, and modes of transportation to know that people find me a little frightening. So, in a meeting space, I would let people have their first impression of me (which I imagine to be something like, “Damn, that’s a big dude. He kind of looks like a professional baseball player or a linebacker.”), let that sink in for a bit, and then I’d throw them for a loop.
The truth of the matter is I’m more of a 90 pound weakling on the inside: a nerd, scholar, intellect, and totally not the alpha male type. I’ll take a game of Trivial Pursuit over tackle football any day. I joke with people that I’m only big on the outside. But I am only half joking.
My colleague marveled at the effect of this little game: I know what they will think of me and then I break that first impression up. As a result, by the time they actually have a decent read on me, I’ve got a ten minute head start on figuring them out. What is all the more interesting, is that I held back my authentic self (the smart guy) and then used it as a control device. Why give away this little secret? Control doesn’t interest me anymore.
Magic and Loss
Having fierce self-control is also why losing a parent and getting divorced was all the more painful: I could no longer control my projected self. Instead I was, “Steve whose dad just died” or “Steve whose wife left him”. I was a pre-ordained projection, and a vulnerable projection at that. I lost all control over who I could be, how I could act, and what projection of myself people saw. I was mono-dimensional and, what’s even worse, people knew stuff about my personal life! The horror! The horror!
“Of course Steve’s in a bad mood; his dad just died.”
“No wonder Steve up and moved to the midwest; his wife did leave him last year.”
We’re all guilty of doing it to others, aren’t we?
Losing Control and Loving It
Control is mental. Control is conscious. Control is ego-driven. Control is an attempt to protect our authentic self.
The absurd notions that we can exert our will on the world thereby bending it to our whim or that we can live a fulfilling life by hiding our true selves from the public eye are fallacies that drives far too many to ruin. Giving in to ambiguity, uncertainty, and the direction of universal guidance is pretty scary stuff. Letting the world see your authentic self is downright terrifying. Being in the flow, connecting to an emotional/creative state, and not knowing what the second step after the first will look like is not a natural state of mind for humans. Nor is the ability to be genuinely you in your daily life.
Let me amend that: discomfort and authenticity are not natural states of the un-evolved human being; they are, however, the preferred states of the evolving, creative human being. Why?
Discomfort brings engagement and change. Discomfort means you’re doing something others were unlikely to do… The resistance desperately seeks to sabotage your art… Why push through the dip, why take the risk, why blow it all when there’s the comfortable alternative instead? The people who break through usually have nothing to lose, and they almost never have a backup plan. (Seth Godin, Linchpin)
The resistance is there to tell us that we should return to our natural state, the place where we worry about eating and defecating and reproducing and protecting and sleeping and surviving. This is the place of control; the place of safety where our true selves can hide. Yet, we are becoming more than that.
Technically, we humans are more than Homo Sapiens or ‘wise’–we are Homo Sapien Sapiens or ‘doubly wise’. In other words, whereas animals ‘know’, humans have the capacity to ‘know that we know’… we are both observer and observed, knower and that which is known. We are each completely unique yet completely connected with the entire universe. (Duane Elgin, Promise Ahead)
My Present Control Issues
I’ve realized in hindsight that I lost control in the summer of 2008 and that was one of the best things to ever happen to me. Yes, it corresponded with my divorce and I told my ex- at the time that “she ruined my life”. That was true. Now, however, I would add, “Thank you!” But, in the two intervening years, I struggled with losing the old me–the cerebral, consciously controlling me–and finding the new me–the living presently, creatively-driven, emotionally grounded authentic me. I know where I am going in life and I see the next step before me but the rest of the route to get to my goal is shrouded in mystery. I sustain a state of mind that constantly challenges my innate desire to understand everything so I can marvel in the magic of synergy, dialogue, and creativity.
Despite the fact that I am more whole as a result, I still wake up some morning–like today–with a heaviness that presses my creative, inquisitive soul down to the bottom of my stomach and tells me to grow up, get my shit together, and put my game face back on. I fight to be in this new state of non-control, to continue to let personal and environmental control slip through my fingers, and I sometimes lose. I lost this morning and I’ve been fighting all day to get back.
But, having found my emotional grounding and told my ego to get lost, I know that it is a fight worth fighting and I will wake up willing to fight it every day.
Successful people learn from failure… They learn that the tactics they used didn’t work or that the people they used them on didn’t respond. You become a winner because you’re good at losing. The hard part about losing is that you might permit it to give strength to the resistance, that you might believe you don’t deserve to win, that you might, in some dark corner of your soul, give up. Don’t. (Seth Godin, Linchpin)
Put another way (thanks for the quote Richard!):
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting. (e.e. cummings)