In thinking about what has been therapeutic in my own life and one element that stands out is regaining control. Much research has shown that when individuals perceive themselves in control of a situation, they are less likely to be affected by stress or feel as threatened by the situation. Feeling that one has no control can lead to emotional exhaustion and a lack of the confidence needed to deal with challenges.
What does “being in control” mean and how does one find ways of being in control in the midst of crisis, uncertainty or chronic unsolvable problems? Sometimes it involves taking action and sometimes it means seeing the world and yourself in a different way. But a sense of control can make the difference between feeling a victim of life’s circumstances or the director of one’s own life.
One way of exercising control is through the word “no. It is through this word that children, usually starting in the “terrible twos”, experience their first taste of power. There are many ways one can say “no” either verbally or through action, but it is the realization that we don’t have to ask permission to use that word that makes it useful. For those who did not get an opportunity to use this power in childhood, it may be a challenge just to get comfortable with the word. But it is there, waiting for anyone to use when they are ready.
Verbal or artistic expressions can be the few avenues of choice available to children and teens, who feel very much under the thumb of parents, school and state. The power to show ones feelings even if one cannot speak them, allows choice and exercise of personal power when there is little other recourse. Adults also may find that art can be a way to make statements that have been unheard or express feelings that have not been accepted.
Those who feel frustrated by little choice sometimes see self-destructive acts as the only self-determined actions available to them. Unhealthy choices, while minimally productive, are at least a way of asserting control. Wonder why one might feel so strongly about the right to unhealthy eating, drugs, alcohol, or to take actions that lead to unpleasant consequences? The good news is that one’s spirit is determined to assert itself. The next question to ask is …. Why do I feel that my choices are so limited that control means self destruction? It’s time to take a closer look at involvement in relationships where one has little voice due to a physically or emotionally abusive partner or work or home responsibilities that are all consuming, or inner turmoil that leaves one feeling helpless? Beginning to make choices more directly related to the problem, even if they are only small steps help regain a sense of control. And see that the most important choice is that we can choose to value our own self.
What are some ways we can find a sense of power and control, even when many circumstances are constricting? A start is acknowledging all the areas that one does have control over even if it is only, as my friend Kim notes, “I am always free to think my own thoughts.” I can also choose what route to take while doing my errands or what color shirt to wear and exercising these small choices can be meaningful in starting to exercise options.
A common route to power is knowledge and knowledge can be helpful in two different ways. Sometimes a sense of hopelessness blocks one from seeing possibilities. Gaining information can be a step toward changing limiting circumstances and by learning the signs of emotional abuse, or reading about healthy eating, or finding if there are any eldercare day programs, etc. one can make improvements in specific situations.
Gaining knowledge or enjoying ones skills in areas that have nothing to do with the situation, can also be empowering. The confidence gained from success in one area can impact ones approach in other areas. A recent source of inspiration for me was seeing a calendar from the Mouth and Foot Artists Association, featuring art by persons who are limited by physical issues, but refuse to let that curtail their artistic expression. For myself in times of stress, I often pick wildflowers and arrange them, my way of saying, “I got plenty of nothing, nothin’s plenty for me” (lyrics from Porgy and Bess). The herbalist, Susun Weed’s Woman’s Carpentry Book, features women, who built their own homes by hand. Each of their stories is an emotional as well as a concrete achievement. To read online about an amazing woman who surmounting many obstacles stemming from being born female in her West African community, go to Angelique Kidjo’s website. Her music and story were featured on a radio show I heard yesterday.
If we did not have good examples and lessons in making choices then it is time to find some new role models and through their inspiration find our own source of personal pride and make steps toward realizing our own true self. It is in the acknowledgement of our choices and our decision to exercise them that we can take control of what is ours.