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  • Laura Perry

It's Possible I'm Not God

My therapist says I have control issues. She's nice about it; she usually says something super low key and non-confrontational like, "You are aware you aren't God, right?" And then we argue about whether I have god-like control over at least a limited sphere, and she uses logic and psychology and usually wins, and I do better for like 3 and a half hours or something, and then once again begin trying to engineer every outcome, large or small, within my area of influence, in a completely fruitless attempt to stave off shame, inadequacy, failure, and death, in that order.

I really dislike that I can't eliminate all risk from my life through careful planning. While I thrive on the high from outcomes that are even better than hoped for (the project turning out far better than anticipated, the unexpected visit from someone you love), most days I would give it all up if I could just be reassured that my strategic interference and relentless consumption of informational books would keep my friends and family safe and happy.

But when I'm really paying attention, and not in denial, it's abundantly clear how little control I really have. I mean, hell, I can't even really control how my hairstyle turns out in the morning. I can't control whether my car breaks down, whether I get a good night's sleep, or whether the cat rage vomits in front of the washing machine. I can't control whether people like me, whether my children blame me for everything that's ever gone wrong in their lives, or whether my boss thinks I'm the most amazing employee she's ever had. I can do my best on all of these things, but the outcomes are pretty much 100% outside of my control.

Yesterday I was feeling rather uniquely powerless about a toxic situation. Along with a few people I care about, I'm in a circumstance in which problematic behavior has been normalized. Change appears unlikely. The sense of being trapped is intense. The specifics don't matter as much as the reality that none of us within this situation have the capability to get out of it, or to change the parameters. This situation has been going on for some time, but the sense of powerlessness comes in waves: sometimes you get nailed right in the kisser and the undertow grabs you as soon as you're underwater.

My brain went to work on this right away. Like most control freaks, I'm nearly always convinced that the answer to everything will eventually turn up if I google enough things and practice some forceful social engineering. After spinning my wheels for a fairly lengthy time period, I came to the understanding that there was almost nothing I could do to change the situation.

I can't tell you how much I hate this.

When my younger daughter was in grade school, she was viciously bullied nearly every day. In case the full impact of that didn't land, I'ma just type again that NEARLY EVERY DAY MY DAUGHTER WAS BULLIED. Every day I would pull into the carpool line, white-knuckled, braced for the anguish that might ensue the moment the car door opened so my tow-headed baby could clamber in. My little girl had the triple handicaps of extreme empathy, perfectionism, and incredibly thin skin, and being a pushover made her an easy target. During her second grade year I was in the classroom far more often than I care to remember because another little girl was actually THREATENING TO KILL HER. This in the hard suburbs of Homewood, Alabama. The school counselor and I got to know one another very, very well, as I got to know all of my kid's teachers.

We lacked the resources for private school, and because a) I am not in any way a qualified teacher, and b) I had to work full-time for our family to survive, homeschooling was not an option. So every day I drove her to a place where she would endure the unmitigated hellscape of elementary school, sans friends of any variety, and every day I would go pick her up and let her cry and reassure her that she was a wonderful person and someday somebody would be smart enough to see it.

She was in 3rd grade before she had any friends at all, and in 9th grade before she had a friend group. NINTH GRADE. This means she went kindergarten - 8th grade without people who wanted to eat lunch with her. If anybody ever wants to come talk to me about how kids are basically innocent little cherubs, be prepared for a very literal fistfight, because a quarter century of working with actual children and raising two of them have taught me nothing if not that most children are savage and cruel by instinct.

All of this to say, I have never, ever, not one time in my life, ever, felt more powerless than I felt during those years my daughter was suffering. I wanted to fix it more than I wanted to have a left arm. Or even a right arm. Even just writing about that just now was traumatic and I'm probably going to have to go call my therapist as soon as I'm done writing this blog and I want to go find my kid - who is perfectly okay now and almost 17, by the way - and hug her for like 27 minutes.

Compared to that, the situation I'm currently dealing with is pretty tame. The only thing they really have in common is my complete lack of control.

Which, honestly, is bad enough.

So, after my brain did the hamster-wheel thing about my current situation and I reflected on this for a while and felt frustrated and had completely disproportionate emotional responses to unrelated things, I realized that while I could not change the situation, I could step back and reframe.

First off, I could set my own boundaries. I could decide what I was and was not okay with, articulate these boundaries clearly and kindly (and repeatedly if necessary), and be willing to deal with the consequences of upholding these boundaries. Or, alternatively, I could decide consciously that I wasn't going to set boundaries, and that I was going to be okay with the consequences of that, too - and realize that those were consequences I chose. Either way, I could make a conscious choice on where I stood vis-a-vis how other people were treating me.

I could focus on the unpredictable benefits this difficult situation had already offered up, and choose to believe that other benefits would be forthcoming in the future. This might put me on the alert for opportunities I might not otherwise see. It's also likely to make me more appreciative when the situation changes.

I could write stuff down about this situation in order to process and understand my feelings. And also so that when I finally write that book that's gonna make me a bazillionaire, I would have great material - and I would feel like I was controlling the narrative, at least to some extent.

There's this obnoxious saying that you can't control what other people do, you can only control your response to them - and that's both right and wrong. Yeah, you can't control others. But sometimes the initial, uncontrollable, and appropriate response to a terrible situation is to feel sad and angry and hurt for a while, and to deny that this is an appropriate response and assert that everybody should just soldier on through is pretty freaking toxic, too.

But what I do believe we can do is refuse to let bad situations or difficult people control US. I cannot think of one reason why I should let the people I dislike the most control my mood for a whole hour, let alone a whole day. I cannot imagine why on earth I would yield authority over whether I feel contentment to people I would not trust to watch my cat (even the cat I don't like).

It may be up to someone else whether I'm in a situation I find sub-optimal.

But it is not up to them how I process it, whether I carry it around with me, or how I reframe the situation in order to best facilitate my mental health. They get to control a lot, but they don't get to control that.

Brene Brown, hands down my favorite researcher, says that we should all get a 1-inch by 1-inch piece of paper and write a list of all the people whose opinions count in our lives. These are people who have skin in the game, who aren't just spectators or critics - people who will come through in a pinch. And if the name's not on the list, then their opinion doesn't matter. Look at the list as often as you need to. Every five minutes if necessary. Every 30 seconds if necessary.

One way for me to look at that list is that it's the list of people who get to have a hand in the controls of my life. They don't to call all the shots, but I trust their input.

And for everyone who doesn't fit on my one square inch of paper, it's not up to you.

My therapist may be right (she is usually right): I am not God.

But neither are any of the people who, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes on purpose, try to elbow me into hell. They don't get to do that. It's not up to them.

I may not be God, but I get to live my life as divinely as I choose to. And so do you.

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