I once wrote a thesis on why people have such trouble changing things about themselves that they say they want to change. From what I can tell, this issue is still a widespread problem, so perhaps not everyone read my thesis or applied its various insights. Or maybe changing things is just really hard.
There are lots of different angles for approaching a challenge like this, but one that seems worth trying is to figure out how we benefit from the continued existence of the thing we’re having trouble changing. Or perhaps we should ask whether the thing we persist in doing is protecting us somehow. What role does it play for us?
If we’re calling this a group therapy session, it only seems fair that I start.
Let’s take my tendency to micromanage my teenager.* I recognize that it drives him crazy, which puts him in a bad mood, and generally pushes whatever thing I’m hoping that he will do further and further away until it’s too remote to see. So micromanaging is bad for him, bad for me. What keeps me coming back for more?
It’s not hard for me to come up with an example, so let’s do a case study.
One Friday afternoon Ninja asked to be driven to the library. I might have said, “I can’t right now, but we can go tomorrow morning.” (If that wasn’t my response at the time, it had certainly happened before—he often says, “Can we do this right now?” and my allegiance to efficiency starts me working to combine errands. Driving down to the library and driving back home seems reckless, when two or three other errands could be neatly fitted into the trip.)
As I recall, on that particular day I took him where he wanted to go, without messing with his itinerary. Once at the library, he seemed to have trouble finding a book he was interested in. Perhaps he couldn’t find the one he had planned to get. He found no books at all by the author, who is both popular and prolific, which made me think that perhaps he wasn’t looking where those books were shelved—perhaps he was looking in adult fiction instead of YA, that sort of thing. My suggestion wasn’t well received.
Next, I began pulling things off the shelf and asking, how about this? Or, you’ve read something by her—has she written something else you want to try? He was getting more and more fed up, wondering why I was micromanaging—Huff!
I’ll tell you why: We had come to the library, and I hadn’t even grouped errands around it. We were here, and if we left without a book, he’d just ask the next day to be brought back. I was interested in him taking home a stack of candidates, hoping that one or two of them would turn out to capture his attention and hold him for a few days. When he gets going, he’s a voracious reader, and I wanted to postpone the next stand-in-the-library-aisles episode by making this one count.
I think Ninja would complain that all he wanted was to be left alone to choose his own book (Gosh!). I’m fine with him choosing his own book; if his next trip to the library involved no driving or waiting on my part, that would work great for me. In fact, the school library is well-stocked, and when he gets his books from there, I don’t manage that process at all, micro or otherwise.
My reason for getting involved in this case was because just going along with Ninja’s time table, preferences and plans meant me changing my time table, preferences and plans, chauffeuring him, and being prepared to do that again soon. (I guess when I put it like that it sounds like parenting.)
So what’s really going on in my head? You’d think I would know, because it’s my own head,† but the best I can do is advance a theory: I’m drawn to efficiency, and I hate waste. I may say that I want to stop micromanaging, but if the only way to do that is by embracing inefficiency, now I’m getting hit where it hurts!
You’ve heard of a monkey trap, right? It involves a container that has an opening that’s big enough to allow a monkey’s empty hand through the opening, and inside there’s something attractive, like a banana. The monkey puts her hand inside, grabs the banana, but can’t pull her hand out while she’s holding it, so she’s stuck. She won’t leave without the banana, which means she won’t leave.
So now we come to it—it looks to me like my attempts at micromanaging are my way of preserving the illusion that I’m in control. Illusion is the most important word here, of course, since whatever I’m doing, it’s not accomplishing my goals.
My new question is this: what am I willing to sacrifice? I can’t expect to change without giving something up, and maybe I’m going to have to let go of more than my target behavior. I might not be able to give up micromanaging my teenager unless I’m also willing to give up a desire to influence other things, like my schedule, his near-term academic outcomes, maybe more. If my hand stays clenched around something I refuse to give up, then I am stuck in a crouch, out in the open and vulnerable, and that’s not going to end well for me.
From Into the Woods we have this assertion: “it takes patience and fear and despair to change.” As I come to grips with the downsides of my choices and stop denying that I have everything under control, I’m bound to experience some fear and some despair. Those are feelings no one wants to feel, but hiding from them may just prolong my stuck-ness. Letting myself feel them, while at the same time hanging onto patience, may help me to find the path towards progress.
If there are things about yourself that you’re trying to change, how’s that going for you?
*I’m sure my son would say, let’s take that tendency to micromanage, and put it in a box, and then put that box inside of another box, and then mail it to ourselves, and when it arrives, we’ll SMASH IT WITH A HAMMER!
†There’s a lot of psychological research on this, including the interesting finding that we tend to observe our own behavior and try to draw conclusions about what we really believe in the same way we speculate about other people’s behaviors and beliefs. Go figure.
[Images: yours truly x 2, thecareerpsychologist.com, Timothy Banks, chicagoreader.com, ohmy.disney.com]