"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Control Yourself

Have you ever come to a realization about yourself that is so obvious and so mind-blowing at the same time?

It happened to me a few weeks ago, during a Health Coaching session I had with my little sister.

Let me start at the very beginning...

My youngest sister, Emily, graduated from college a few years ago and immediately started working as a fitness instructor while she pursued her certification as a Personal Trainer. You may remember that she offered me a personal training session during this time. It was, um, awesome.

She loves personal training and excels at it, but she was ready to take her career a step further. She's currently enrolled in a post-graduate Health Coaching program through Emory University. She asked if she could conduct a practice session with me as part of her training.

"Will this involve, like, burpees and tennis shoes?" I texted back when she sent me a message to schedule the session.

"LOL" she wrote back. "Just talking! And you'll do 95% of it!"

An hour of listening to myself talk? And not having to see any tween eye-rolling in response?! Sign me up!

I put it on my calendar...more out of a kindness to my sister than in hope of any deep and powerful revelations it might yield. I already feel as though I'm pretty in touch with my own feelings and emotions. I had no expectation that it would turn out to be a conversation that will stick with me forever. And yet...

Emily started the conversation by  explaining to me a bit about what a Health Coaching session is: A chance for me to identify any obstacles (whether emotional, physical, behavioral, or social) that stand in the way of me reaching my goals (whatever they may be) and to find a way through them. She also told me what it isn't: A conversation that will result in an answer she will provide. She was very clear: "I don't have a solution to your obstacles, you do."

She started by asking me what area of my life I think I could be feeling better about. Some of her clients come to her with frustration about not being able to reach their health and fitness goals but, for me, who has no health or fitness goals, it's more emotional.

I'm not as happy as I think I should be. Particularly as a mom.

It's weird, seeing those words...almost as weird and sad as it was to speak them out loud. I think most people assume I'm a pretty happy and content person. I can be fun and funny and engaging. I can turn on the charm. And I think it's pretty apparent that I love my kids and view myself, first and foremost, as a Mother. I don't feel depressed but, looking at my life objectively: great marriage, great kids, great job, great everything, I shouldn't feel as short-fused, impatient, and stressed as I do...particularly in my relationships with my kids.

As I talked to my sister, I heard myself say things that I've long known to be true, but that I haven't fully admitted ownership of:

I feel as though the water is bubbling at the rim of the proverbial pot and the tiniest of my kids' infractions -- dawdling at bedtime, or a snappy response to my instructions, for example -- causes me to boil over immediately.

Because I have such high expectations of them, I can be demanding of my children.

I love my children and want nothing more to be with them...but when I am with them, I am not the happy, silly, Fun Time Mom. I'm the Schedule Keeper, Task Master, Clean Up This House I Can't Even THINK With All Of These Piles Everywhere mom.

Give me a board game or a pile of Legos and I'll sit with you all day but ohmygod no, I can't play Puppy Sisters with you even for a minute.

And worst of all:

I often use a different voice to speak to my kids than I use with other people's children, and it's not a pleasant one.

But then I revealed to my sister what I consider to be my greatest strength as a mother: I am so deeply and emotionally connected to my children that I view them and feel them to be direct extensions of myself.

[Insert a pat on my own back here.]

At that point, Emily gently steered the conversation to me, the person, beyond my role as a mom. She asked me about what made me feel the most happy, the behaviors I was engaged in when I felt the most contentment. I talked about my need for organization and control and how, when I feel organized and in control, I feel peace. I feel the most stress when the individual silos of my life (Mom Sarah, Wife Sarah, Work Sarah, Volunteer Sarah, friend/daughter/etc. Sarah) merge. When I'm working while the kids are home from school and I feel guilty for not being able to give 100% of my attention to either, for example, or when I'm too spent at the end of a day to even have a conversation with Sam, or when I feel like there is So Much that is Broken in this world and that I should be doing more to Fix It...but, like, I'm tired and I just want to sit.

What makes me happy is when everything is Perfect and under total and complete control and my silos are neatly ordered and I'm doing an above-average job in all of my roles and people are demonstrably appreciative of my efforts.

Is that too much to ask?

At some point during this part of the conversation, I said that I am a perfectionist and I have extraordinarily high expectations of myself. (This was not a revelation to either of us.) I give myself very little grace when I make a mistake. I gave the example of spilling something: Instead of laughing and thinking/saying "Whoopsy!" I'm immediately pissed. I'm angry at myself, ridiculing my negligence or loss of attention or control.

"What I'm hearing," Health Coach Emily reflected, "is that you're not speaking very kindly to yourself and that, at the same time, you view your children as direct extensions of yourself."

"Yes," I agreed, proudly reveling in that positive note she ended on, before the negative correlation between these two facts sunk in.

Ummmmm. Damn.

If these are both true, which they are for me, this means that the demanding and harsh tone I use with myself is the same voice I use with my kids because I see them as such an extension of myself. And that, when all is said and done, is the habit I'm truly trying to change.

We went on to talk about a few other things, including how I can practice merging my silos productively and responding to my feelings, whatever they are, with acceptance rather than disapproval, but it was that one big connection that I couldn't get out of my head for the next few days.

I thought it was a good thing that I see my kids as a direct extension of myself. I realize now, though, that what I saw as a deep emotional connection, was my need for control over, not just my life, but OUR lives. The bubbling stress I'm feeling is the realization that what control I thought I had over them was just an illusion. When they were babies and I thought I was in total control of our collective lives, it was really just that I was effectively managing their schedules. I never gave them enough credit for having their own control over Self. The smoke is clearing, though, as they get older and it's becoming increasingly apparent that these three progeny of mine are, in fact, their own individual people, capable of exerting their own control over their own corners of this world...which directly impact mine. Why is this so mind-blowing to me? It's so OBVIOUS...


Earth. Shattering.

So how do I let my need for control go so that I can truly appreciate them as their own, fully actualized individuals? How do I respect their own senses of Self and still find peace, in the absence of having control? I don't know yet, but I'm trying to figure it out. I'm trying to look at them with fresh eyes...to recognize WHO they are, not just observe the behaviors that they are displaying.

But it's hard. My need for order and control runs deep. I can't let that go entirely. Having a shared organizational system seems to be helping. We recently introduced a daily schedule to help with the morning rush and a daily/weekly chore chart to help me not feel like this house's Dobby.

This gives them the autonomy to manage their own schedules within the system, while giving me a feeling of control (I created the system).

A visual representation I recently learned from a friend who is a therapist also helps: We each have a gear. They are all different sizes. My small perfectionist introvert gear sometimes has trouble fitting with Max's big expressive extrovert gear. Max's gear is spinning big and all over the place forcing my gear to grind to a halt because it can't just spin in quiet, methodical peace. When we need our gears to work together, I can make mine way bigger to fit his (which I can sometimes manage because I'm an adult who prides herself on Complete Control of Her Gear) or he can make his way smaller to fit mine (which is reeeeeealllly hard for him to do...like trying to fit a foam mattress back in the box it came in) OR we can both adjust our gears slightly until they fit. I can be a bit more flexible, allowing his morning song and dance routine, while still maintaining the expectation that he is in the car, ready for school, when it's time to leave.

Also, this time is short. I know it in my heart and I'm trying to repeat it to myself often. They're growing up so fast and this, right here and now, is my chance to get to know my kids in the unformed clay stage, their true natures, before they head out into this world to be shaped by what comes next. This, right here, is the sweet spot. And, in my quest for compliance, calm, and order, I'm missing the messy beauty that is my kids' self discovery.

That was an incredibly powerful hour of Health Coaching.

Lesson Learned:

In the days since my conversation with Emily, I've been actively trying to reframe my relationship with my kids. I am trying to speak to them in a voice that honors their own individualism, disassociating them from being merely The Children of Sarah.

Let me be honest: I'm not like this new Zen, infinitely patient and accepting, version of myself. Change takes time. But it starts with awareness and, now that I know better, I can do better.


Edited to add:

After I wrote this, I happened to tune into the latest episode of Oprah's Super Soul Conversation podcast. (It must have been the Universe intervening on my behalf...I've been on a Getting Curious kick and haven't listened to Super Soul in a few months.) On it, she featured the best-selling author of The Awakened Family, Shefali Tsabary. It echoed exactly the feelings I've been having since my Health Coaching session. It is a MUST listen to for all parents. Listen here (Search by release date 3/17/19).

1 comment :

  1. Wow. Your sister is almost as awesome as you are.

    Once again, your family mirrors ours in so many ways. Reading your self-description there is like reading M's biography. Only last night, I said I would try to be tidier around the place because I know that she doesn't like mess.

    It's great to know you, even if only through the keyboard and screen. Your life and your family's life gives inspiration and hope to this corner of Cambridgeshire.