The phrase was meant to reclaim the word for which it is an acronym and make it positive. But the truth is, the acronym is a description of what happens when one is in total control of oneself for too long. I should know (and those around me probably know even better). I’m not always successful with it, but my natural mode is to be in total control of myself at all times. It’s not easy, of course. It takes constant vigilance. But I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember, and most likely long before that.
I’ve been talking with my wife about how I’ve longed for disciplinary spankings for most of my life, and how that connects to the spankings I received (or didn’t receive) when I was a kid. There was a lot of spanking in our house, but I didn’t come in for much of it. I can remember, offhand, perhaps half a dozen times I was spanked or hit by someone older than I was. My siblings and my mother don’t even remember that many times. And this is just a little strange, given that people were being hit constantly.
So how was I avoiding it? Because I was in utter and total control of myself. I did not allow myself to mess up. And, what’s more, when I did make a mistake, I was pretty much certain to beat myself up over it (figuratively, not literally). So a scolding was more than enough to make me change my behavior, and I only got hit if I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—i.e., within reach of an authority figure when they blew their top. Or else, when I made mistakes at the wrong time.
Punishments (or rewards, come to consider) were nothing like consistent when I was growing up. Sometimes a little mistake (say, taking too long to find my siblings before dinner) would result in a huge eruption. And other times you could mess up pretty badly, and nothing would happen at all.
Psychologists say that random reinforcement is the most effective kind. For my siblings, this meant that the randomness of the punishments rewarded their misbehavior. For me, it just cemented that if I was perfect, absolutely responsible and reliable, I could avoid having that anger come crashing down on me. But it came from making changes in myself that are exacting a high cost, now that I’m an adult.
I still beat myself up about little mistakes.
I still strive to separate myself from any negative emotions.
I still have that filter in my brain that will not physically allow me to talk about the bad parts of growing up—at least not directly.
Even while I was growing up, I craved a consistent type of discipline. I wrote stories in which the characters got spanked, but in which it came from a loving and protective impulse from their parents. For years, I explained this to myself as a way of trying to reconcile my love of my family with a way that I could understand what they were doing. But that’s a stretch. Those stories make much better sense if I read them as a way of me trying to work out why I wanted spankings, even if I hated the way they happened in my house. In fact, when I was ten or eleven, I remember telling my older sister that it wasn’t the spankings I minded, but the way they happened. She pointed out, “You cry just the same.” And I couldn’t explain the difference to her (or to myself, really).
There is a world of difference between the disciplinary spankings I need and how I was hit as a child. When I was a kid, and someone hit me, it arose from frustration. As I’ve gotten older, I have managed at least to comprehend the unhappiness, despair, frustration, and anger that would make people need to hit something. I don’t quite get how they were able to hit small children, but I do understand the desire to hit. Hitting came from a loss of control. It was unpredictable, and it wasn’t safe. The person being hit might have been a catalyst, but it wasn’t really about us.
The thing is, either because of how I’m internally wired, or because of how I was raised, punishment works better for me than rewards. It’s probably a part of why I was hit so much less often than my siblings—because I would do anything to avoid punishment. (Well, not anything, because the only time I ever successfully lied my way out of a punishment was when I was nearly given a speeding ticket when I was 25.) You know how they say that kids prefer negative attention to no attention at all? Not true for everyone. I far preferred being ignored to punishment.
Rewards were nice, but they came at a cost. Or else they seem somehow insincere—I got a lot of positive reinforcement at school, but it really didn’t overwrite the messages I received at home. The only reason my teachers liked me, I reasoned, was that they didn’t know what I was like inside. Because if my family didn’t love me, then how on earth could anyone else care for real? What’s more, the only reason my teachers liked me was that I was so practiced at being good that I rarely slipped up in the simple environment of school. Things were so predictable at school that my success at reading my teacher’s minds was no challenge at all. I failed more often than I could bear to at home, where it counted.
I’ve been working my way through all of these issues ever since I left home. I’ve chipped away at it, but so much of me is still inclined to strive to be in total control of myself (oh, yeah, and everyone else around me). And there are times when it makes me a real bitch.
It’s tiring to always be in control. It makes me feel resentful that other people don’t take up the slack. But I can’t tell them that I need this, and I have the devil of a time accepting when help is offered. Help is a dangerous a thing.
It’s so hard to change my way of interacting with the world. More importantly in this situation, it’s nigh impossible to change my way of interacting as it affects my wife. It’s incredibly frightening to just tell her what I need, to speak honestly about how I feel.
Yet, I have started to learn that I can actually avoid a long bout of depression if I actually face the issues that are giving me feelings that I don’t want to have. I don’t want to need someone else (one wonders why I got married—well, I do have some good sense, buried somewhere in my brain!). I don’t want to acknowledge that I’m imperfect, that I make mistakes, that I need attention and nurturing. And for even more reasons than I can express, I really don’t want to acknowledge how much I need for someone safe to take some control in my life.
So now we’re grappling with what it means for her to take up some of the control in our relationship.
My wife commented yesterday about how much she loves being the passenger. She meant it to be a thank-you to me, for being there, and being in charge of that particular part of decision making in our lives. I was shocked at the resentment that burst inside me. It’s not that I don’t want to be the literal driver, because I do like doing the driving. But often, it feels like I’m always the “driver” in our relationship.
I crave someone else to take charge somewhere.
I’ve been working on understanding that my wife is that separate, real-life individual, with feelings and issues of her own. So often, not talking about things, my brain will build up this sense that it would be easy for her to just give me the spanking, easy for her to just take more charge in our lives. It’s especially hard, because in so many ways, she is very like the fantasy I had built up about my ideal partner. And then she turns out to be this human being who has needs of her own, who can’t read my mind. Our relationship turns out not to be this simple thing, where we always want exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.
I was reading Pink Bottomed Girls, and Pink and Brat each made insightful posts this weekend on this very topic. What Brat wrote resonated with me because it’s so much what I’m feeling right now. Pink’s post really helped me to empathize with my wife. Pink said that there are times when
… the last thing on my mind is disciplining someone else. I can’t even discipline myself. I am feeling the need for externally compelled discipline and self -discipline, for order, for giving up control, for someone to take me over their lap and show me how much I am loved even though I haven’t done the dishes or put away the laundry, either. I do think that part of the problem with our situation is that we don’t have clearly defined roles (gender or otherwise) in our relationship; we share every responsibility with no delineations. How can I punish her for something that I could have/should have done? I procrastinate, I’m messy, I’m lazy too. How can I punish her for faults I share? And who will discipline me in return?
My wife may not want or need to be spanked, but, like Pink, she does want someone to help her get organized, to stop procrastinating, to become more consistent in doing the things that she needs to get done. She needs the knowledge that I love her unconditionally. Much of the time, I provide that for her (or I hope that I do). But when we both need it, it’s difficult for either of us to have our needs met.
In our house, we do have suprisingly well-defined roles much of the time. From the beginning, we recognized that we each were strong where the other was… less so. And most of the things that need to get done can be divided along the lines of our strengths. I’m the one who is supposed to be type-A, responsible, reliable, dependable. I’m the one who is supposed to take charge in so many of these details.
Much of the time, this is easy and natural for me. I have taken charge most of my life—I took charge of my younger siblings when I was growing up; I took charge of my own life so that I could go to college; and I have continued to take charge ever since then. Sure, there’s the side-effect that I can be very controlling. Yes, sometimes it means that I sulk when things don’t go exactly my way. It also means that I roll right over less, um, pushy personalities. But most of the time, things do get taken care of.
In some ways, I worry that my wife resents me when I need her to take control. I feel guilty, because I know that it isn’t easy for her to take charge, to tell me what to do. And it’s even harder, because I find myself resisting, even when I know that it’s exactly what I need. Something inside me struggles against easing her way. I do this with so many of the things that I need—comfort as much as spankings, encouragement as much as criticism. It’s as though I want her to prove that she cares enough to fight her way through the barbs and challenges I throw up against her. If this is hard with things that come naturally to her, how much harder must it be with something like spankings?
Tomorrow is Labor Day, one of my traditional “New Year’s Days.” It’s time for a fresh start, time for a clean slate. So I will make two resolutions. First, I will strive to be a little less of a “Being In Total Control of Herself.” And second, of course, I will strive to procrastinate less and to be in control of the things that depend on my control. We’ll see how it works out.