Letting Go of Control: How I Stopped Trying to Force Solutions

August 15, 2019 Kristance Harlow
header image of happiness

When I was a little girl, I remember becoming so overwhelmed with feelings that I would send myself to my room until I could cry through enough of them to clear my vision. If I got in a fight with someone, I would write an apology note and beg them to take it off my hands. I didn’t seek to understand who was at fault, I only wanted to ease the uncomfortable tension. I was sorry it happened and I wanted to undo it. I needed to erase it, but I could rarely get the resolution I was so desperate for. Adults told me: “Not everyone is ready to resolve a conflict as quickly as you.”

No one told me: “It’s not your responsibility; you cannot fix it.”

I respond too strongly to my perception of others’ reactions. I always wonder if I read physical and social cues too strongly. I consider the presence, the look, and the tone of voice more important than the content of what they’re saying. Maybe I’m right in my assumption, maybe I’m wrong, but if someone doesn’t want to tell me how they’re feeling, I can’t make them.

I have lived the majority of my 32 years on earth in this way: A conflict arises and all I want is for the issue to go away and be resolved immediately. If it isn’t fixed, I feel my world is collapsing and I freak out. I cry and panic and become desperate for resolution. My mother recalls that I was predisposed to such behavior in my very early years. She told me that even as a toddler I had these panicky freak-outs.

I hate the idea of causing hurt feelings, and particularly disappointed feelings, in others. But other people are often more well-adjusted and can handle the blows of disappointment as easily as a ship rises over a large swell. It’s not comfortable, but it’s a normal part of the ups and downs of life. Yet I’ve always handled it like my ship is about to wreck. I know I’ve had feelings of being over-sensitive and disappointed from a very young age. I didn’t want anyone to be mad at me, ever. It’s a part of how I’ve always understood or misunderstood the world.

I never knew any other existence. I didn’t know that I didn’t have to force a solution. I didn’t know how to balance emotions—I didn’t see it as a possibility.

My feelings run deep and the current is disproportionately strong. I am headstrong and emotionally reactive. I struggle with the tendency to overreact, but life is not as dramatic as I make it out to be. There are times when I need to be reminded of the true proportions of what is happening, so I can weigh them against my feelings and try to cut some of the excess heft. I’m not exaggerating my feelings; I feel so intensely and so deeply that learning to balance myself in a world that does not feel this way has been a lifelong challenge.

Imagine a life full of dramatic conflicts, and you can never control the level of your emotions; they always overflow or break the dam. Joy is out of this world happiness and sorrow is the deepest despair. But the ups and downs are consistent and the rocking from one to the other is comforting because it’s familiar. Then, after decades of this you begin to feel different. It’s not overnight and it isn’t that the pendulum has stopped the perpetual swinging. But you feel different, as if now there’s more light than dark. You realize you can feel angry or anxious or sad without flooding or sinking.

That’s me, right now. I feel generally content and I don’t know what to do with it. The mellow ups and downs of a content – even happy — life feel too safe. Part of me is waiting for the next massive swell. Of course, something will happen, that’s life, but this normalcy that feels so good can sometimes feel so strange. It’s like waking up in a new home and forgetting, for a moment, that you moved there.

I still struggle with feeling responsible for everyone’s feelings. And the feelings I have are not just imaginary: I might sometimes actually be left out, or I might sense someone else’s sorrow. Someone might dislike me and I might realize it. When I sense tension, it might not be a delusion, but my awareness of it doesn’t mean I’m responsible for it (or for fixing it). Making someone like me isn’t my job. I am not here to be an emotional sounding board for everyone who is suffering.

Recognizing that I am not responsible for and cannot fix other people’s feelings is powerful; it frees up so much space and time for me to do my own healing and growing.

My life was so filled with panic and fear; that panic of needing to resolve the issue immediately. I felt that way in any interpersonal conflict, whether real or imagined. I had to force a solution. I felt as if my worth was intrinsically tied to the other person’s acceptance of me. This set the stage for an abusive relationship where the other person never validated me, which further reinforced my own negative self-image.

I have been discovering my own sense of serenity over the last five years. I started going to therapy and then to a psychiatrist and then to a 12-step program followed by two other step groups. The combination of these different sources of support has changed my life. I don’t feel such intense panic over real or imagined conflict with others. I still feel anxious sometimes, but my response is much healthier. I am becoming more capable of controlling my behavior and my reactions, even when the feelings linger. I can usually put my well-being first and don’t follow through when I get the impulse to explain and rationalize my behavior to others.

You can’t change other people; you can only do something about your own perspective. I always had the capacity to do that, I just hadn’t acquired the coping tools to handle my own feelings and respond to others.

First published on The Fix.

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