I spend a good deal of my free time posting on a support forum for Friends and Family of Alcoholics. I have a couple of qualifiers in my life, and I have spent a lot of time in therapy to deal with my own codependent issues and dysfunctional upbringing in regards to relationships and communication, but a cornerstone of my recovery has been understanding and accepting the things I can control and the things I can’t.
From all this therapy and application to life experience, the strongest conclusion I’ve come to is that if I think I can control something, there’s about a 98% chance that I’m totally and completely wrong.
People on the forums invest a lot of energy in the illusion that they can control things they can’t — whether it’s their alcoholic partner or relative’s behavior, or the environment in which that alcoholic interacts with them and others close to them. I understand this tendency, having been raised to believe that if I behaved in a certain way, or said a certain thing, disastrous results could be averted. I was never instructed in what those behaviors and words were, exactly, which made for a great deal of trial and error…mostly error. It was mostly error because in truth there was nothing I could really do to manage the environment we were growing up — the fuses leading to the explosions were lit long before I came along. The only variable was the length of those fuses.
The freedom that came with giving up the illusion that I had any control over the alcoholics in my life is almost not-able-to-be-articulated. So many doors opened when I let go of the idea that the responsibility for someone else’s choices and consequences had anything to do with me. I’ll spend the rest of my life walking through those doors and still not exhaust their supply.
Which shouldn’t imply that I still don’t struggle with about a dozen situations every day in which I am forced to realize that something I want to fix isn’t mine to manage. It happens in interpersonal relationships, at the office, even walking down the street or riding the bus with a dozen strangers. When I see someone casually toss their garbage on the seat beside them just before getting off at their stop, every instinct in my body is telling me to grab that garbage, pull the door alarm on the bus, and chase that thoughtless douchebag down to rub that freaking garbage in their face. I can’t remember a point in my life when I would have actually done such a thing, but neither can I remember one where I didn’t have the compulsion to do it. I’ve made a meditative practice of talking myself through the situation — recognizing the overreaction, playing the tape to the end (where I end up in jail), and acknowledging the ultimate futility. That person is not going to navigate the rest of their days in fear that another crazy person will chase after them and rub their garbage in their face.
Right about now, many of you are thinking, sure, but alternatively, you could still retrieve the garbage and follow that person, but instead of rubbing it in their face you could calmly and rationally explain about how there are bins all over the city and that it’s rude to leave your trash for someone else to clean up. Perhaps you might add that the world is not their maid service. Sure, I’ve considered it. When I play that tape to the end, I don’t end up in jail. But some times I end up with that garbage in my face.
I’m not their mom. I generally hate the phrase “It’s not my job,” but it’s not. The garbage-leaver is an adult, and if they want to make shitty, selfish choices about their garbage, it’s their right (I know, I know, littering is a crime; and if you can get the police to actually ticket someone under these exact circumstances, you win, but I don’t have that kind of time).
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in rehearsal rooms with actors who haven’t seemed to learn the same rules of etiquette that I have and it drives me up a goddamn wall, but there are people in that room whose job it is to maintain order, and I am not that person. Moreover, if I try to be that person, I’m actually just robbing the person whose job it is of their right to manage the room any way they please. So what are my options in that situation? Limited, but not entirely ineffectual. I can tell the stage manager how I feel, and I can not engage in the unprofessional behavior myself. In the longer term I have other options — maybe I don’t do shows with that theatre or that person (or that stage manager, if I think they’re not effective) again. From one perspective, it sounds like I’m screwing myself out of opportunities by making that choice — but it’s my choice to make, and that’s empowering in an of itself. I get to choose whether I want to take every role that’s offered to me and work as much as possible, or if I only want to work with people and companies where the experience is as awesome and non-frustrating as it can possibly get.
When it comes to family and interpersonal relationships, the best tool in my recovery toolbox is the question, “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be at peace?” At 20 I just wanted to be right. In my 30’s, I was mostly convinced I could have both. These days, it’s peace all the way. I do as much as I need to satisfy my own sense of self and well-being and let the rest go.
There are some areas I still struggle with, though. One is compulsive eating — which despite its name I still manage to convince myself is entirely a matter of willpower. I’ve written a lot about that elsewhere and don’t necessarily want to rehash it here. The other is unsolicited advice-giving. In this, I admit, I am the worst. I have to keep pounding it through my head that giving advice where I haven’t specifically been asked for it is akin to trying to control another person’s choices and manage their consequences for them. Instead, I have to focus on sharing my experience only. Instead of “You should do this…” I can say, “When I did this, this happened, and when I did that, that happened.” Harder than it seems sometimes, especially when you encounter folks as deeply in denial about what’s happening in their own lives as I was before I entered therapy.
In conclusion, I’ve learned that I can only control myself and my choices. I can’t control my emotional responses to things people do and say or events that happen to and around me, but I can control what I choose to do with those emotional responses. I have a tendency to want to fix my feelings as soon as possible, and that has led to a lot of bad choices in my past. Sitting with my feelings, not judging them or myself for having them, is one of the greatest challenges of my adult life. I was raised to believe that my feelings were secondary to those around me, and often that they were simply ‘not right’, so I learned to stuff them one way or another (including with food). The unstuffing process has taken a long time, and will, I expect, go on for a lot longer, but it’s a process worth committing to. I’ve uncomplicated a lot of my life my feeling my feelings when they happen, and then letting them go as much as possible. With every experience in which I can do that, I unravel the illusion that I have any more control over the world than a drop in the ocean does, and my sense of self solidifies a little bit more.