I come from a long line of control freaks.
Which is to say, my people, like many, are highly motivated by fear. Highly.
Particularly my father. I will never know why or how he developed into such a fierce perfectionist. I only know that it is a trait that definitely carried over into my own makeup, much to my chagrin.
I am a recovering perfectionist. But a perfectionist nonetheless.
It’s an exhausting way to live. And exacting.
My father was incredibly hard on himself and set extremely high standards of behavior for himself, and for others.
This led to a family dynamic that was often painful, confusing, sometimes dangerous, often maddening, and, ultimately, costly. Costly, because it affected the quality of relationship between us all.
At least that’s been my experience and belief. I am sure everyone in my family could offer their own. But this is mine.
Without wanting to sound like someone justifying an abuser’s bad behavior, I do believe, truly, today, that he was coming from a well-meaning intention. He genuinely loved us as best he knew love to be, and he wanted us to succeed at life.
I can say that today. But if you also grew up with a controlling, perfectionistic parent living from unconscious fear, you know that there are many other feelings that have preceded this place of understanding, this perspective of compassion.
I felt so controlled in my childhood. There are moments still when I can feel the ghosting sensation of a yoke on my neck and shoulders. No, I was not made to wear a literal yoke. But I felt so managed, so handled, that there is a tension, a ‘cautiousness’ in my body that literally feels like an actual yoke.
Granted, I was the youngest child. I think most youngest children feel to some degree that they were expected to just go where they were told to by the others.
But in our family, for me, this went much deeper.
There was an unspoken agreement that everything in our household revolved around my father’s needs and wants.
He had a way he wanted things to be done. A way he wanted our family to be seen by others. He had an idea in his mind of a Rockwell-painting family.
And we fell short. Way short. And I think, on some level, he must have felt tesponsible for our “failure.” Or carried a deep-seated fear that other people would see him as being responsible for his failure.
I am not exaggerating by saying that he was controlling. He once demanded that my brother chew his food a certain number of times, feeling that this would solve his weight gain following an injury sustained during football training.
I saw him become enraged at our dog because she would not “behave.” I feared for her life on more that one occasion, and my own as well.
These were tangible expressions of his attempts at control. But much more affecting in my opinion were the much more subtle ways. With his tone, with his body language, he could command our collective sense of well-being. Depending on the kind of parents you grew up with, you may not quite grasp how this could be so destructive.
He was a big and tall man. Rage in him was quite powerful. Though he never lifted a finger to me (I was spared, I think, being female,) his energy was quite a weapon deftly wielded.
In order to please, I learned to exist, even to breathe, very carefully. I practiced sitting, walking and expressing myself so as to be what I thought would be most well-received. I watched myself, learning to be incredibly self-conscious so that I could, to the best of my ability, create behavior that would be acceptable and not create any negative response from my father. I learned to present a version of myself to my family and to others, to project and maintain an “image,” to try to “control” what I thought (hoped or feared) you thought of me. This, I have learned since, was a way of living I developed in order to feel safe.
Safe. That is a concept I am still unravelling. It was not a word that was on my radar until quite recently. I did not consciously realize that I lived in body that felt unsafe 100% of the time until several years ago. The constant state of “shell shock” felt normal to me. With help, I learned that I had a right as a person to feel this state of being, this “safe.”
I work with my body on that. Catch myself holding my breath and body steeled against attack as I go about mundane tasks wherein there is no perceived threat. But my body doesn’t seem to operate from that knowing there is no threat as its usual state of being. Instead, it is on high super alert 24/7. As I said, exhausting. But this behavior, this conditioning, having been learned (it is not what my body came into this world doing…my true essential nature is not fearful) means that I can learn other behavior and condition myself towards it.
As with all personality traits, there were positive benefits from his exacting and controlling ways. They served him well in his profession. He was, in his career, incredibly respected and successful as a result of his dedication and sheer will.
He built an empire from poverty. Amazing, really.
But the price he paid for it was not worth it in the end, I feel confident saying that. He and I found our way to a relationship at the end of his life. For that I am forever grateful. But as a result of many things, his controlling behavior being key, we lost out on having any real father-daughter relationship early on. A deep loss for each of us, I know.
I am in the midst of doing a deep, deep clearing of all of my belongings. I just found and read a letter he wrote to me when I was in my 20’s. We’d been years into a very volatile relationship. Once I was no longer under his roof and had independence, I began to fight back in passive aggressive ways, using my own finely honed talent for control to withhold and manipulate his attempts to connect.
I don’t recall reading it then. I am sure I was too filled with hurt and rage then to even “see” him in its words.
I do remember my mother telling me at the time it was a huge deal that he’d written it, but at the time, I couldn’t comprehend or appreciate that. He was maybe 10 years older then than I am now. He was looking back at his life and seeing things from wiser eyes. He was aware that his time left to resolve our issues was limited. He was trying to break out of his own exquisitely built shell, perhaps.
Today, I can feel the real man/the bewildered boy he was in those sentences, in the words he carefully chose. It’s funny, he uses the word “ghost” to describe how it feels for him to try to keep trying to get close to me. That it is as if there is some ghost there that he can never meet or see in order to face the problem.
He was so right, though I could not deal with it then. There were several ghosts there, ghosts that I am still living with today.
But I have been befriending mine. Compassion is key. The last thing my internalized father-bully needs is to be bullied. I have awareness, and I have choice. I do not have to live out of control and perfectionism in order to feel OK in the world. I give myself the fathering my father must never have had himself. And I work hard at my relationships with others so that I do not make them feel the way I felt growing up.
It takes work, but like the Velveteen Rabbit, today I am alive and Real and I have real, loving, healthy relationships with other people.