It was about 12 years ago and I was getting to know a woman who I would soon start dating. I don’t tell you this story with pride, but with shame. It really embarrasses me.
This woman had a brilliant mind. She was talented enough to do anything she wanted. Her competence, talent and intelligence were stunning. She could have done something really impressive if she had wanted, but what she really wanted was to be a teacher. She had received her degree and was about to start teaching.
That seemed like a waste to me. I thought she could do something so much more “impressive.” I don’t remember what I said, but I was trying to nudge her into thinking about something bigger. I was probably a bit condescending about it. You see, if she was going to be in my life, I wanted her to do something more impressive. I wanted to make her into what I thought she ought to be. I wasn’t honest enough with myself about it at the time to know this, but I made her career choice all about me.
I’m not a control freak, but I’m happier if you do things “the right way.” My way.
One of my core problems is my compulsion to reform everything around me, including other people. It’s not that I don’t also want to fix myself. I do. I want to fix the entire world around me — and that includes other people. This is really a problem of me needing control.
My world felt completely out of control when I was a child, so I learned to obsess about performing correctly — trying to be perfect to avoid criticism — and that led me to believe everyone needed to perform exactly in accordance with my standards. If I focused obsessively on trying to get myself and other people to meet those standards, it distracted me from realizing how little control I actually had.
It’s been a great defense mechanism. It has allowed me, at times, to believe I had more control in a chaotic world than I actually had. But there are ugly downsides to this defensive behavior.
For one thing, I obsessively beat up on myself for not being good enough — for not being perfect. Most people seem to be in denial about their faults, but I’m hyper-aware of mine. I’m hyper-aware of all the things I need to change about myself, and that frequently makes me far too hard on myself.
Second, I have sometimes allowed myself to become far too judgmental of the people I love most, especially in romantic relationships. Without realizing what I was doing, I’ve often decided what those people ought be at their best — and I have tried to mold them into that.
I’ve been aware of this tendency for a long time and I’ve worked hard to change it. It’s only been recently that I have finally understood, though, that my desperate efforts to perfect other people were mostly about my own fears of imperfection.
Trying to make other people more perfect — while I did the same to myself — made me feel as though I had more control over the world and over reality than I really do. Why do I fret so much about needing control?
It’s because I’m terrified of the chaos of the world around me.
It’s because I’m terrified of the physical dangers that are everywhere.
It’s because I’m terrified of the randomness with which we can be struck by disease or death or failure. It’s because I’ve been successful in starting to climb great mountains — and then I’ve fallen to failure — so I know how easy it is to lose everything.
Most of all, it’s because I’m terrified about my inability to control whether the people I need love me.
Writer and therapist Ian Morgan Cron says the personalities we build are essentially our reactions to the trauma of not getting the things we need, as children and as adults. I heard him say today that we’re all addicted to something — and the thing to which we’re addicted changes depending on our personality defense mechanisms.
When we think of addictions, we typically think of alcohol and other drugs, but those are just some of the behaviors of an addict. The thing we do in our addiction — whether it’s alcohol, cocaine, sugar or sex — is just what we do to numb the pain of the underlying problem. The underlying problem — whether we realize it or not — is a craving for love and understanding and acceptance. We chase other things as substitutes, because we don’t know how to get what we need.
“We all want love, but we settle for something else,” Cron said.
I settle for perfection — or striving for perfection — and that leads me to attempt to be in control. Another personality type might settle for admiration — for her achievements — when she doesn’t know how to get love. Another personality type will settle for something entirely different, in order to numb himself to the pain of not having the love he needs.
You have an addiction, too, whether you know it or not. Your addiction might not manifest itself in ways that are obvious to others. It might even manifest itself in ways that appear positive to others. But you are compensating — as all of us are — for whatever needs in our lives are still unmet. Those needs are often hidden from us.
Once you know that and accept it, some healing can begin — if you’re self-aware enough to stumble through the process and be vulnerable enough to allow someone to help you find your form of “sobriety.”
The only good thing about this for me is that I’m aware of my tendency and I’ve learned to be very open about my flaws. I have to be careful not to be too hard on myself, but making myself vulnerable to you — and hopefully with someone who will love me one day — can stop me from being controlling in the wrong ways. By confessing my sins, so to speak, I can allow others I trust to hold me accountable.
There’s nothing that anyone can confess to me which is going to shock me. I think this is why so many people over the years have found themselves sharing their deepest fears and darkest confessions with me. I am so aware of my own dark places that other people’s dark places don’t scare me so much.
I don’t want to control others. I don’t want to try to force others to be whatever my idea of perfection is. I don’t even want to poke myself constantly about my continuing imperfection.
I’d rather just be honest and vulnerable with you — both of us — and for us to both lovingly hold the other accountable for living an emotionally healthy life. It’s the only way I know to get past the addictions which often threaten to destroy us.
By the way, the woman who I condescendingly wanted to be something more “impressive” than a teacher turned out to be very, very impressive.
She did become a teacher. She’s a great teacher. She loves her students and she changes the lives of the eighth graders whose minds she’s shaping.
I’m proud of her — and I’m glad she had the wisdom to ignore my arrogance about what she ought to be.