I learned from an early age to live my life strategically. I was always pre-empting and anticipating problems to try to nip them in the bud. Since my mother’s behavior was erratic (as an adult I’m thinking it was borderline personality disorder), I lived life like a game of chess, always thinking several moves ahead. Unlike some of my siblings, I think that is why I managed to emerge from my childhood in better shape than I might have otherwise. (Certainly with fewer black-and-blue marks along the way.) I could detect a certain look in my mother’s eyes minutes before the eruption would take place, and I was smart and quick enough to get out of the line of fire.
As a result, I’ve always been in high-alert mode, assessing situations, trying to detect problems way before they happen, and doing my best to avoid disaster. I can’t say that it’s always worked, but my life lessons have come in handy and I’ve put them to good use, personally, at least.
My problem is that, as a result, I tend to micromanage everyone else’s life as well—my husband, my children, and, on occasion, even a sibling or friend. My husband is a pretty easygoing guy and usually just goes along with me or doesn’t get too offended when I tell him what to do. He doesn’t always listen, which can frustrate me, but he knows how to handle me.
My children, however, are another story. Right now I have four teenagers at home. My daughter is 19 years old, followed by my 17-year-old son and 15-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. It started a while ago, but lately things are getting out of control. (There I go again, using the “control” word.) My 17-year-old is like his father and kind of ignores me to some degree. When I tell him what to do, he’ll smile, and if it makes sense to him he’ll follow my lead. And if it doesn’t, he won’t, but he won’t argue with me. He’ll just quietly do his thing. It can frustrate me, but at least it doesn’t lead to arguments.
The other three, however, are all clearly sick of my constant input. When I’m calm and rational, I can see their points of view and realize that I’m overbearing. But I’m always so frantic that they will make a mistake that can never be repaired, and I find that I so desperately want to “save” them. I just can’t help myself from inserting myself, and lately our house is feeling like a warzone. So much arguing, yelling, door slamming—it’s a disaster. I’m thinking that I’ve managed to turn my own home into the home I grew up in, which I desperately needed to escape.
I don’t know how to shut off this part of my nature. I look at my husband, who is able to calmly state his opinion about certain things but then back off and say to me and probably to himself, “The chips will fall where they may.” I sometimes get so frustrated and angry that I want to shake him and say, “Do something!” But in a rational moment, I know he is doing the right thing. Our children are no longer babies. They have to figure some things out for themselves. And yet I’m terrified of seeing them fail and suffer.
My question is: how do I calm down? How do I look away, keep my opinions to myself, and have some faith that we’ll all get through this thing called life in one piece? I love my children and want to be close to them, but I see that I’ve been driving them away and it breaks my heart.
You definitely have a great deal of insight and seem to understand how you emerged as the woman you are today. The skills you developed in order to stay as safe as possible from your mother’s rage served you well and kept you out of the danger zone.
Skills we develop at a young age—particularly skills that helped us feel safe and in possession of at least a little control over our environment—become embedded in our psyche and part of the fabric of our essence. Therefore, they are very hard to drop—even as we watch and understand how they are undermining our present happiness and relationships.
So here’s the deal. It’s great that you are savvy enough to preempt problems way before they actually become a problem. And I’m sure as a result you have aided yourself in all sorts of situations. But have you noticed that no matter how “strategic” you are, some things are just meant to be? We do have some control over ourselves, our choices, and our behaviors, but despite even the best-laid plans, sometimes disaster is meant to happen. It’s important for you to understand that you can’t save the world. You’d like to, for all the right reasons, but a person’s control only goes so far. Once you realize that despite your best efforts, life has a way of playing out and some things are just meant to be, perhaps you can give yourself a well-earned, permanent vacation from fixing the world.
Secondly, your children are trying to individuate from you. That’s what teenagers are supposed to do. Though we don’t relinquish all control and input, we have to let them figure out who they are, separate and distinct from their parents. Your husband realizes that, but it seems as though you aren’t quite there … yet. As these teenagers pull away and make some of their own choices, they will naturally, on occasion, stumble and fall. By doing so, they will hopefully learn valuable lessons that will help them grow into independent adults with strong life skills. In trying to get ahead of this natural life progression, you are not doing your children any favors. You are not allowing them to figure things out on their own by making choices that aren’t always the smartest, but often necessary nonetheless.
Your model for “letting the chips fall where they may” is no doubt the scary memories you have of your mother being out of control. If you are correct in your diagnosis of her being borderline, my heart goes out to you. Living with such an individual can be traumatic. It has left its psychological marks on you, which seem to be easily triggered. But you have to understand that that was then and this is now. It doesn’t sound like anyone in your family is prone to that personality disorder, and therefore you can relax and allow the more typical ups and downs of life to happen, without experiencing the threat level that existed during your childhood.
Ironically, if you aren’t able to relax into a less controlling stance, as you’re already observing, your house will become a more and more toxic environment filled with anger and even rage, similar to what you experienced as a child—but for very different reasons. Now it will be on you, since your children are evidently pushing back against your domineering behaviors.
I know it’s not easy to drop skills that enabled you to survive and even thrive during a difficult period of your life. Although they saved you way back then, they are doing the opposite right now. So take deep breaths, work on your faith that you are not in control and that’s how it’s supposed to be, and live life one day at a time, allowing for more joy and less worry. It will be what it will be, and you and your family will get through it, without your constant controlling.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295. Read more of Esther Mann’s articles at 5TJT.com.