My youngest always fought with me over the littlest of things. Lately I had even resorted to bribing her in return for the peace it brought.
“Put away your plate,” I reminded her after dinner the other night, “otherwise no iPad.”
“I don’t care,” she retorted. “And you can’t stop me.”
I was taken aback by her refusal of her most favorite electronic device. This new defiance continued well into the week. She evidently felt liberated from mama’s grasp and began to relish her newfound freedom. She left the dinner table uncleared with confidence, slept in her school uniform with defiance and fought with her siblings without fear.
I lamented my loss of control over her life and found myself obsessing over her every move and nagging her ad nauseam from dawn to dusk.
Yesterday she came home and threw her backpack right by the front door. I ordered her to pick it up, but as expected, she shot off upstairs. I lurched around to catch her but stumbled on the backpack, and, losing my balance, fell into the arms of my startled 16-year-old.
Now this was adding injury to insult. I couldn’t take it anymore, and shouting, “You will pay for this,” I straightened myself, grabbed the backpack and marched off upstairs, fuming.
My head throbbed; my heart raced. I looked around wildly and threw the backpack into my cupboard, shoving it like a maniac behind the clothes to make sure it was well hidden. I was a tad startled by my own vengeance, but found great solace in the thought that come morning, she would learn her lesson when she found it gone.
Alas, the strategy backfired. The chaos, wild search and resultant stress in the morning was hardly the right time to announce the backpack’s whereabouts. The older three stared at me aghast, shocked at my immaturity, and held me accountable for making them late for school. Miss Rebellion, already shaken, found herself cornered and hated being checkmated.
Red and flustered, she screamed, “I’ll tell my teacher you hid my backpack!” and, glaring at me with angry, red eyes, marched off to the car, hollering and howling.
I watched the car as it drove away. Left alone in a silent and empty house, I began to contemplate my actions. Why did I hide her backpack? What was I trying to achieve? Hidden deep under my desire to make her responsible, was there a fear of losing control that had turned our relationship into a battle of wills? If so, where did this egoistic urge come from?
To really understand, I knew I had to begin at the beginning.
And so it all began millions of years ago. In the very first reptiles that roamed our planet, there evolved a brain whose primary motivational system was survival. We still carry that reptilian brain atop our bodies. It is hidden under the many layers that followed and finally gave rise to a level of consciousness that enables us to reflect on reflection itself.
In this truly magical brain, the need to be in control still trumps all other needs. It is what ensured our survival in the savannahs so that oodles of us could roam the planet today. However, in our relatively safe existence in the 21st century, it seems to be affecting the way we interact with life.
We see it in our relationships when we fail to enter the lives of others with empathy and see the world through their perspective. Instead we try to run their worlds and only end up distancing ourselves from them. To connect with others, we need to develop what Dr. Barbara Fredrickson calls “positivity resonance,” a feeling of safety and sensory contact. When we threaten others by entering their spaces of autonomy, we break the very channels that would enable us both to thrive.
We see it in our work where we try and control the outcome, becoming obsessed with success and achievement alone and end up losing the enjoyment that comes from losing ourselves in our work. Being in flow, as researched by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont University, is a state of total engagement that leads to optimal experience and is one of the pathways to a life of well-being in Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of flourishing.
We see it too in our desire to control our own selves. There is much that has been written about shifting our locus of control from external to internal. That makes us believe incorrectly that we would do well to control our minds and bodies. When we try to control our minds, we become deaf to the deeper wisdom of the subconscious, the vast resource of fears, insight, and aspirations that lies within us. This disconnect with our own selves makes us ironically vulnerable to old habits of our reptilian complex and the urges and dopamine-driven behaviors of our limbic system.
This too is when we begin to respond to current society’s destructive demand for the mirage of perfection that leads to social comparisons and negative competition. In a world where we can control little, if anything at all, we turn on ourselves and struggle to control our bodies, subjecting them to harsh exercise and diet programs, little compassion and much guilt. No wonder eating disorders in all their forms continue to rise just as the age of onset continues to decrease.
And finally, we see it in our reactions to life situations when we try to take charge of situations and end up disrupting the flow of life. This makes us nervous in the face of uncertainty, blind to opportunity and disconnected with the wonders of life. We fail to live the full spectrum, finding solace in our own safe compartments and end up weakening the strength of courage that provides the fuel for creativity and growth. This only feeds back into the fear that gives rise to the need for control. As such, fear essentially safeguards our selfish desire for survival.
However, we humans are what French social psychologist Emile Durkheim called “homoduplex.” We evolved through multilevel selection as Darwin states in The Descent of Man. We have our selfish gene that looks out for our survival. But we also have our altruistic gene that looks after the well-being of the “hive” to which we belong.
And yet, we cannot belong when we stand aloof and try to run the world around us. To fully participate in life, we have to learn to let go of the need to control and decide to connect instead. And in trusting ourselves to the yin and yang of life, we hope that maybe, just maybe, in those brief moments of bliss, we will transcend from a profane existence and belong to something much larger than the self.
A deep breath. No, I will fight no more. Instead, I will learn to let go. I need to recognize that many a time it is not our children’s habits that we are trying to fix, but our own gigantic egos that we are eager to stroke. I need to understand that in order to win over our kids, we have to always accept and often ignore. And I need to trust that it is our unconditional love and understanding that lays the foundation for the values that we wish to eventually see in them.
I head slowly upstairs and take out her backpack. Inside, I drop a little note. In curly pink handwriting, it reads: “I love you too!”