I freely admit to being a control freak. I’m not proud of this, and it certainly makes life difficult in some ways, but there are good sides to it, too. For example, I’m normally very productive and organized. I’m always on time and I always meet my deadlines.
But lately the universe has been telling me I need to let go of the illusion of control over things in my life. Because, really, what can we control? Therapists counseling people in relationship difficulties will tell them the only thing they can control is their reaction to other people. Yet even our own reactions are difficult to control when we’ve spent years forming habits of interacting with others in certain ways.
The first step in AA is well known: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Other 12-step programs modify this step to fit whatever the addiction or problem is, but the basic truth is this: “we are powerless.” While this statement may not be helpful to some people, it’s useful for me to remember when I’m on a control rampage.
I’ve been reading a great book by Lauren Sapala called The INFJ Writer: Cracking the Creative Genius of the World’s Rarest Type. Being an INFJ (based on the Myers-Briggs personality typology) as well as a writer, I was naturally intrigued. I thought I knew myself really well, but Sapala helped me understand myself better. The passage that seems particularly relevant to my life lately is this one:
The best piece of advice for any INFJ who is in the grip of perfectionism is to Stop Thinking About It. Whatever “It” is for you. The book you want to write. The guy or girl you want to be your soulmate. Your dream house. The thinking only takes you so far, and honestly, it is our tertiary function. We like to flatter ourselves that we can hang with the Thinkers any time we want, but the truth is that it’s not our superpower. We get into damaging loops where we circle the topic like a vulture, our Introverted Intuition ready to pick the bones clean for any new information that we can join up with existing knowledge to complete the pattern. But sometimes, there’s just no new information to be had. The piece you’re looking for that will make everything fit—how to write the perfect book, how to be absolutely sure this is your soulmate—doesn’t exist. You’ve got to wing it. In fact, it seems the Universe is demanding that you wing it.
Now, winging it is not what control freaks do. But I know exactly what Sapala means when she talks about damaging loops. I am that vulture! My husband and I are currently house hunting, and I’ve been picking the bones clean, so to speak, from every real estate listing within a 40-km radius of my city in search of that dream house. It’s exhausting.
Being an academic doesn’t help. Not every academic is a control freak, but many of us are, and being a professor and researcher does nothing to teach me how to wing it. I work alone most of the time and don’t have to answer to anyone. Even when I’m working with students, I’m the boss, and unless there’s a serious problem that requires the intervention of my department head, I can organize my courses and set the rules the way I want to.
I’m taking Sapala’s advice as best I can, especially to Stop Thinking About the dream house. Interestingly, I’m seeing parallels between my difficulty relinquishing control to my agents, both my real estate agent and my literary agent. Having an agent of any kind involves letting that person have some control of the process. I’m so used to doing everything for myself and knowing all the details that it’s hard to trust someone else to research the details for a contract/deal that’s so important to me. The other day, as I swooped down to (virtually) feast on the latest house-for-sale carcass, my husband said, “Just let [our agent] do his job.” He’s said the same thing in relation to my literary agent! (And if either agent is reading this, I apologize if I’m being annoying!) Fortunately, I do back off and stop being a pest as soon as I realize I’m in the damaging loop.
My latest lesson in winging it came from the protagonist of my newest novel. I’ve been struggling with her for months now and feeling blocked because she’s less like me than any other character I’ve written (she’s an ESFP, in Myers-Briggs terms). She knows how to wing it. She’s not a control freak. But I’ve been frustrated with her the way I would be with a recalcitrant child. “Why won’t you talk to me?” I complain. “How can I possibly write your story if I don’t understand you?” And then a couple of days ago, she sashayed into my head, sat down and told me who she is and how she wants her story approached. It was like a gift from heaven, but I couldn’t help but wonder why it took her so long. I just had to wait until she was ready to tell me. I can’t even control my characters, so why do I think I can control anything or anyone else?
Lesson learned, hopefully. This vulture is going to try to wing it!