We control what we can control, except we can't control shit.
Loving all these thoughts, especially back to back with Anne Helen Peterson’s write up on the “anxious style” in American parenting from a couple of days ago. I have been up close and personal with that, having an almost 3yo but also being the product of avant-garde philosopher artist types (if IRL people had catchphrases my stepmom’s would be “everything is a construct”.) Not to say I’m specially above it all, just been off to one side long enough to have a different angle.
I would love to know whether/how this kind of quest for control manifests in societies with a robust communal support system (welfare state or otherwise). I know I feel the strongest urge to control things when I’m brought face to face with just how utterly alone many (middle/upper class) Americans are in the face of basically any difficulty. For us Millenials, even the bog-standard etiquette seems to emphasize monetary and logistical support that can be done at a distance, emailing a delivery gift card or dropping off a frozen meal on someone’s porch so as to not intrude. When I was freshly post-partum and struggling to breastfeed (ultimately unsuccessful, hello fellow BF dropout), what I really wanted was people I felt comfortable being undressed with - literally and figuratively - who would sit with me - again, literally and figuratively - while I was frustrated but still trying. A casserole is nice but I can order all sorts of meals to my house, there’s no gig economy app for real social support. (Yet… j/k)
On that note, please enjoy one of my dad’s catchphrases, on being self employed (which he has done for 4 decades and counting) “you trade the illusion of security for the illusion of control.”
Progress is not linear. It’s not orderly. But it is cumulative. It’s how we learn.
Thank you forever for this essay, Virginia. It touches on things I’m still unpacking in my own life.
We must stop apologizing for our messy imperfect selves.
thanks for this Virginia. I read the NYT piece about the women behind intuitive eating and the comments there are so wild (but not at all unexpected)--beyond the huge fatphobia, there were just so many comments from people saying basically "if I let myself eat whatever I wanted, I'd be [insert some horrible fate, whether it's a specific weight/etc]"--like, so many of us were taught to view our bodies as essentially ungovernable and something that *needs* to be controlled. this essay from you today really helped me think about that.
All the feels And some thoughts. In the last week I:
- was overwhelmingly triggered by photos of myself giving a lecture and realized (even MORE) how much I control the way I even let myself SEE my own body..the angles of a zoom, a photo, even looking in the mirror.
- had this enjoyable exchange: 6-year-old friend of my 6-year old rejected the snack food I offered; we were exploring options; I said he needed something with fat and protein to make the energy last. And he said "UG, why would anyone want to be fat?"..to which I replied, "it's fine to be fat, and if you didn't eat fat, your cells wouldn't work properly." UG.
- I also finally started riding my bike to work again because I LOVE IT and it makes me feel LIKE I AM A FLYING SUPER HERO OF JOY. And got to say out loud, very neutrally, to some work colleagues: "I have to work on my dismount, because I am fatter now and it's harder to swing my leg through the frame quickly."
- I listened to the Glennon + co with Sonya a few weeks ago. And the line that still rings is "what if you and your body were on the same team." This might ALSO be what my husband says to me. Like.. a lot. So, like, YEAH, on the control issue.
I've never commented, but I feel compelled to drop in and say thank you for doing the work that you do. It's awesome and important and I appreciate it so much!
Virginia, this piece is so beautiful. Thank you so much for writing it. As a fat kid who became a fat adult, I recognized both the adult pieces of this, and the kids ones; this line broke me open: "Lots of childhood dieting and exercise abuse begins as a quest for love and safety. "
So much yes to that. I sometimes try to give my parents grace for how much they hurt me, but I also recognize that I was a little girl, and I just wanted to be loved. Anyway, I'm in a good place in my life right now, with my body and with being loved, but this piece...phew. So good.
I am also a recovering perfectionist. I typed “I am working on letting go of my controlling tendencies” and then, similarly to you, realized that was also a form of control. Thanks for this.
Abby is everyone’s favorite! Their podcast is so very consistently good. Thank you for this article. I *loved* by controlling my kids. I’m changing that narrative with my granddaughter and it’s great for both of us.
Thank you so much for this, and for all you do!!! Sometimes I read something you give us, and my mind is blown. Today it was the paragraph/quote by Sonya Renee Taylor:
“And so the question is, am I in a just relationship with my body? If I’m saying I want to practice justice, am I in a just relationship with my being right now today? Are the dynamics of dominance, control, coercion, force, are all of those the way in which I’m in relationship with my body?”
WOW. You wouldn't want to treat someone else this way, would you? You're outraged when you see it happening around you! Yet, this is the possible relationship you have with your body. What a perspective!!!
I never thought of myself as a controlling person, but I was--for most of my life (at least trying to be!)--when I was trying to shrink my body to make it "better." I wish I had figured things out sooner.
This hit hard in all the right ways. Thank you
I’m so glad this idea was so meaningful for you! I also think that language can be tricky because it is imprecise and too specific at the same time. I totally understand your interpretation of control as perfectionism and a general too rigid, too tight hold onto things. That’s definitely an aspect of the definition of control. But there’s also the ways we use control positively to mean control over one’s life, to be able to make decisions that aren’t constrained by undue pressures. I see control as similar to power. I want people to have appropriate power, not excessive and I want it to be used well, and especially when it is personal power vs. public power, it is a important to allow ourselves and others to make “bad” decisions because that is freedom! As a neurodivergent person with a high need for autonomy, I think having a sense of control is something that people who love me can give me because they trust me. They love me so they honor my need to plan and organize and do other activities that help me feel like our needs are being met in the best way possible. And to make my needs less stereotypical of what control feels like, I communicate transparently and we make decisions together. But no matter these adaptations, it doesn’t change my needs and I need more sense of control than some other people. concerns about being too controlling can lead to (but don’t necessarily) a process of flipping perfectionism over and doing “not controlling” perfectly that can cause some people to question who they are or play a chameleon-like role as they try to people please their way to doing the right thing by everyone but themselves.
Thank you for your vulnerability and honesty, you don’t need to have all the answers but you give us what we ALL need- a safe space to work through this confusing and heavy shit that doesn’t have easy or fast answers. As my best friend and I refer to these situations: they’re a real shitfuckstack.
Thank you for building our community and letting us know we are never alone. And thank you for sharing the impact that the toxicity has on your nervous system. I get weary of hearing “develop a thick skin!” Because my mind might get it; but my nervous system feels very differently about shitty people attacking me or manipulating me, and I don’t know that I need to evolve some ironclad nervous system just so I can engage with trolls without feeling. Like you posit, maybe that’s control coming in-me trying to control how my body literally reacts, me trying to control how people react, etc. The control pyramid runs high because deep down, I’ve been hurt so many times I would love to go through the rest of life without feeling bad again. Yes that’s unrealistic but I said it-that’s the deepest hurt part of me that would love a perfect world, and thus tries to keep me wrapped up in some element of control I perceive as safety.
Try to let go of control, but also don’t accept crappy treatment. Thanks for keeping it real and reminding us we are all works in progress, and we don’t need to reach a finish line. This essay spoke to my spirit, thank you!
Thank you, thank you for this essay. Just, wow... light bulbs were flashing while listening to this essay 😍❤️🤩
Oof this one really hit home. I didn't fully identify as a perfectionist until ...right now. Thanks for helping pull away the veil!
My current mantra is ‘this is not a problem to be solved.’ Because I am also a recovering perfectionist. And it’s so, so hard to convince myself that not everything/everyone needs to be or can be fixed, but hey it’s a work in progress!
Clearly this essay resonates for many of us. It’s definitely timely for me, as I’ve been learning and practicing Pain Reprocessing Therapy to manage chronic pain. I just read the new book, The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control, by Katherine Morgan Schafler. I will eventually write a more detailed review on GoodReads, but I do recommend it.