The Subtle Signs of Control

There’s often an unconscious mindset, a spiritual sleepwalking involved in the unspoken agreement between the controller and the controlled.

*Dana started making jewelry as a hobby. But the designs she gave to family and friends were so well-received, they began asking Dana to sell her creations. Within a year, Dana’s hobby was a part-time successful business.

            Unfortunately, Dana’s husband didn’t like his wife’s success.

            “A hobby is one thing but now it’s taking away time from our family.”

            Dana stopped selling her jewelry.

            *Brian dreaded calling his mother each day. He knew her judgement and disappointment were waiting for him on the other end of the line, knew he would be insulted within five minutes of the call. 

            “If I don’t call her every day, she freaks out, says she’ll call the police if she doesn’t hear from me. It’s just easier to call her and get it over with.”

            While Dana and Brian are two different people and genders experiencing different relationships, both are people in a controlling relationship. Like the metaphorical story of the frog that’s slowly boiled to death, Dana and Brian are in hot water, living a spiritual death each day.

            Controlling relationships manifest in all forms: romantic, friendship, family, and professional. Like the allegorical frog that is put in a pot of water that, ever so slowly, gets warmer, we can often miss the early, subtle signs that we are about to experience a “slow death.”

            Whether you are wondering if you are in a controlling relationship or about to start one, there is always the opportunity to wax reflective and consider the following warning signs:

  • Do you often feel like you are walking on figurative eggshells with this person?
  • Do you find yourself second-guessing your feelings regarding things this person does or says?
  • Do you find yourself agreeing to “get along” (think of the “Ostrich in the sand” mentality) with this person?
  • Do you feel guilty for privately resenting this person?
  • Have you found yourself altering your lifestyle (i.e. your choice of clothes, diet, faith, friendships, career, politics, etc.) to “make peace” or “satiate” this person?

Dana stopped selling her jewelry to make her husband happy. But just like the frog who sits in water that gets warmer and warmer until its boiled alive, Dana’s decision to please her husband before herself is an ongoing theme in their marriage: like the frog that doesn’t notice the subtle increase in temperature, Dana slowly rationalizes that “it’s not a big deal” that she wears high heels because he wants her to, or cooks lamb for him when she is a vegetarian, or receives an “allowance” from him because he’s informed her that she just “doesn’t have a head for numbers.” While Dana is a physically alive woman, in many ways, she’s no different than that boiled frog.

            Brian’s consistent cortisol spikes around the need to please his mother, usurping his own needs for hers, has long term effects on his biochemistry. An adult man, Brian has the power to decide how often he calls his mother. He can get out of the boiling water any time. But like our metaphorical frog, the Appeasement Game has been in place for years, so he thinks he’s forever trapped in that pot.

            Getting out of the pot isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, getting out of that water will feel downright cold, if not plain frightening. But that is the price of freedom—a gift and right deserved for everyone.

*Names have been altered to retain the privacy of individuals.

The “I’m Sorry” Diet

“I’m Sorry” needs to be restored to a world of heartfelt regret and genuine empathy or sympathy.

We all know the famous tale “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” A child regularly alerts the village that there is a wolf on the prowl, causing the villagers to panic. After several days of this child’s frightening warnings, sans a wolf in site, the villagers start to ignore his cries. Then one night, when a wolf truly does come to terrorize the boy, no one heeds his cry, and the boy falls victim to the wolf.

The words “I’m sorry” are powerful. They have the potential to bring accord to nations, to sow seeds of peace between loved ones and communities. But just like the famous fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” they also possess the potential to go on deaf ears and even plant weeds of weakness from within.

According to neuroscientist and author, Tara Swart (author of The Source: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life), “Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships.” This habit of serially apologizing loses its value on the receiver much like the villagers in Aesop’s fable. And while the “I’m sorry” habit isn’t going to cause us to get eaten by a wolf, it does possess the unhealthy potential to damage our credibility and erode our self-esteem over time.

Statistically, women do apologize more than men. Perhaps it’s from centuries of Machiavelli meme-like quotes (“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”), the façade of weakness often used by women to get men to do what they felt needed to be accomplished. 

Serial apologizers need not be from remnants of pre-suffragette beliefs or from women alone. Often adults who are products of childhood abuse or trauma carry their “I’m Sorry” badge in their psyche, ready to appease and stave off the ghost of punishment with it’s familiar, almost knee-jerk three syllabled phrase.

Regardless of why the “I’m Sorry” habit lingers in some of us, like any habit, we have the power to substitute those words with other phrases that restore our empowerment. 

“I’m Sorry” needs to be restored to a world of heartfelt regret and genuine empathy or sympathy. It belongs in the ears of people who are suffering. “I’m Sorry” needs to be reserved like a powerful antibiotic, taken as directed for egregious acts or victims of violence. For the recipient to feel the balm of an apology, it needs to be used sparingly. When we serve “I’m Sorry” to our loved ones and colleagues like Costco-sized water bottles, the elixir of an apology is diluted and does little to soothe the recipient.

We all deserve to feel empowered; we all deserve to be a source of comfort. When we make a conscious effort to choose when to apologize, we are doing both. Remember: when we serve others, we are also serving ourselves.

Source: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/how-stop-saying-i-m-sorry-all-time-what-say-ncna917011

The Unspoken Struggle

There is a silent but desperate pain in many teens and tweens in our 21st century world

As a writing teacher, I have the bittersweet gift and responsibility that comes with reading the many hidden thoughts of tweens and teens. An English teacher is often informally consigned to the role of therapist, a safe repository of one’s typically dormant insights. While a significant number of students’ essays contain innocuous content, there are sometimes those red flags that require I share my concern with the school psychologist. Unfortunately, I’m seeing an uptick in red flags.

Since the pandemic, we know there’s been a rise in mental health concern. According to MedScape (www.medscape.com), depression symptoms have “jumped threefold, overdose deaths…increased in 40 states, and 25% of young adults have suicidal ideation.”

It is no surprise then that our adolescents are demonstrating an increase in anxiety and depression as well. This past week, I’d assigned my students the following prompt:

“Write about a time when you have felt or experienced a struggle in your life. Did it resolve? If so, how? If not, why?”

Regardless of ability (i.e. ELL learners, GT students and everything in between), my students were eager to write about their struggles. They were also hungry to be heard. Shortly after posting the assignment, a barrage of emails appeared with the following inquiries:

“This really helps. Can we do more of these prompts?”

“I normally hate writing, but I like this assignment. Can I do more than one?”

“I have a pretty big struggle. Would it be okay if I shared it with our class?”

There’s a sense of safety in writing, in getting our thoughts out onto the page. Writing also creates an immediate sense of being heard—even if it’s just for an audience of one—YOU!

Several of my “red flag” essays end with a request to not share their anxious thoughts and/or depression with anyone. They write of observed or experienced domestic abuse, estranged parents, gender uncertainty, cancer, the loss of a loved one, and bullying. The overarching emotion that binds them is a sense that they are alone and unworthy.

I want to hug each of these students. Instead, I tell them the truth: they are courageous for sharing their stories and they matter.