Control is peaceful. Control is predictable. Control is safe. Parents like to control everything: the rain, lines at the amusement park, who’s having fun, how long until the next bathroom break - everything. Life would be free of obstacles if we could just control the sun, moon, and wind. At least, that’s what our subconscious wants us to believe. If we ever took a moment to consider the burden of controlling the forces of nature, we’d likely cower at the thought. Despite the overwhelming nature of control, we still crave it.
“Okay, so you got me. I want to control everything. Is that so bad? I want my kids to have a good time at the amusement park! Is it so bad that I want them not to fight?”
Yes, it is bad. Simply wishing the best for them would be fine in a vacuum, but as we know, nothing comes without consequences. So, what are the consequences of this desire to manipulate the universe to make everyone happy?
The answer is unrelenting stress, overwhelming worry, and an unquenchable need for the inevitably unattainable. We cannot control the weather. We cannot make sure the newlyweds have an easy adjustment into marriage. We cannot guarantee that our children will make friends on the first day of school. We know this - it’s common sense - yet we try to control the outcome of the lives of our loved ones. We stubbornly refuse to let G-d run the world, as if worrying will somehow change the fabric of time and space, willing circumstances to work out more favorably.
This is called “Magical Thinking.” As we have previously discussed, Magical Thinking is a phenomenon in psychology in which we believe we are protecting ourselves or others with maladaptive behaviors. In depression, we believe we are forcing ourselves to be better with self-hatred. Really, all we accomplish is additional sadness. In OCD, we believe we are protecting from contamination or danger with obsessive or compulsive thoughts or behaviors. All we really accomplish is an exhausting array of mental health symptoms. In anxiety, we believe our worry protects against forces that harm. In fact, anxiety becomes more detrimental than the very harms we are protecting against. Our need to micro-manage our loved ones’ experiences has the same root. We believe the chips will only fall correctly on account of our desperate over-thinking. We oppress ourselves with the belief that we must fix it. We refuse to accept difficulty as it happens around us.
Marsha Linehan, an American psychologist and the founder of DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), discusses the need for “radical acceptance.” “Radical means all the way, complete, and total. It is accepting in your mind, your heart, and your body. It’s when you stop fighting reality, stop throwing tantrums because reality is not the way you want it, and let go of bitterness… You have to radically accept something that you don’t have, and it’s not a catastrophe.”
When we do not practice radical acceptance, we are engaged in its counterpart: denial. We are not always able to change circumstances to make them better. Denial of this reality is what turns pain into suffering.
There is enough pain in our own lives. We fight every day to maintain our complicated regimens. From the highest-ranking business executive, to those in the middle of a downward swing struggling to get out of bed in the morning, our lives are wrought with nuances that only we fully understand. We may have support, but we often feel alone in our struggles. We can love others, we can care for others, we can empathize with others, but to make their inner struggle ours to fix is a mistake. First of all, we are crippling the individual’s ability to grow in resilience. Resilience is not built by others fixing our problems; it is built by our support system loving and validating us while we navigate life with our own initiative. Second, we have enough of our own distress to micromanage. Taking on the stress of others, even if they are family members, leads to burnout, resentment, enabling, and co-dependency.
In sessions I like to teach catchphrases. Catchphrases are easier to remember in difficult moments than regular interventions. One such catchphrase that is commonly helpful is “No thanks, I have my own.”
When your adult children are fighting at the Shabbos table in front of their kids, and every essence of your being wants to put on your cape and save them from their struggles: “No thanks, I have my own.” I have my own struggles, my own difficulties, and my own acceptance to work on. I am working on embracing, and making the most of, my own less-than-perfect life. (Besides, history shows that your superhero efforts only serve to exacerbate their issues.)
When your sibling is not treating your elderly mother with the respect you think she deserves: “No thanks, I have my own.” I have my own complex family dynamics to focus on. I cannot spend emotional energy denying my lack of control over the way two adults talk to each other.
We must not use these as excuses to ignore our responsibility to validate and empathize with our loved ones. It is simply a way to notice when we are taking on another’s burden as if it’s our own, when really, we should simply be supporting and empathetic.
When our children have a difficult day socially at school: “No thanks, I have my own.” I have my own hard days that I hardly know how to make better. I have my own stresses in my social life. I cannot make your social life mine to fix, or deny my inability to fix it. Rather, I must radically accept your struggle, make sure you know how much I love you, and support you. I must make sure you understand that no matter what you go through, I accept you, your feelings, and your process. As far as taking on your problems as if they’re my own? “No thanks, I have my own.”