Can you think of a moment that defined your life? Recently, I’ve had cause to reflect. My partner and I have been together ten years this October. The other day I found myself trying to recall the moment when I knew how special he was to me. Like many important relationships in my life, there wasn’t an event or an incredibly clarifying conversation where we moved from a state of not being something into being something. Rather, there was a collection of small, mundane things that consecutively built up to the same truth: we mattered to each other. I particularly remember driving to work in 2007, coming to a roundabout in an industrial estate that I passed every day, and having a very clear realisation that I was thinking about a future with him and that I had assumed he was thinking about one with me too. I made myself a mental note to find out if that assumption was true. I crossed the roundabout. Six years, two universities, and one engagement in Crete later, we got married. It was a considerably larger and more public defining moment in our shared life, and yet that small moment, crossing a roundabout in 2007, is still just as important to me as the memories I have of our wedding day. The little things matter.
The little things matter in therapy too. Part of my therapy was learning to practise flexible control, which is basically when someone with over-control tries to lessen their control in small, non-threatening ways. It sounds bananas when you’re doing it – after all, why would wearing different shoes ultimately enable me to cope better with illness, sickness, and an eating disorder? Well, it’s the same principle of learning anything – Practice makes perfect. There is often a disconnect between the first stages of learning something and the final stages – when I teach dance to beginners, a lot of what I teach is learning to understand rhythm and music – the steps come later. Everything has to be built on something.
So the parking in different places, wearing different shoes, changing my brand of juice, trying different restaurants, dyeing my hair, it all helps me get to a place where I can challenge the over-control behaviour that unhealthily governs parts of my life. It helps me minimise my over-control habits and compulsions, each practice making me more and more comfortable with challenging my long-held views about myself and the world. I’ve seen it work – I am more capable than I was before therapy – but it has also given me a sense of enrichment that I didn’t have before. Sometimes it can be a chore, forcing myself out of my comfort zones even in little ways, especially when I find it aggravating that I have to drive back home the long route rather than the short route just to prove that I can do things differently, but it’s actually also been surprisingly empowering. In the road of recovery, so much of what is achieved isn’t really quantifiable. Learning to respect yourself, learning self-care, learning self-belief – these are not things you can measure in a series of actions. It is more likely that you will never be 100% sure that you have achieved them. Rather, you will trust the words and observations of others, notice gradual changes, and choose to believe that maybe, just maybe, you have become a different person. It can be a long, bleak slog, but logging those little things has a wonderful upside to it. Every day I have done something, a tangible, physical thing that goes towards my recovery. Strangely, by challenging my over-control I am actually gaining something better. I am gaining power.
Power is different to control. Whilst control seeks to contain something that it can’t really change, looking to bind it and cage it with various techniques to keep fear and anxiety at bay, power stands up to it. Power is what allows me to think that I am maybe strong enough to manage the things I am frightened of, that I might be able to manage them without my over-control behaviours. That power, power that comes from turning towards the fear rather than away from it, from relinquishing control rather than tightening it, is slowly and gently setting me free.
It could set you free too.
Practicing flexible control isn’t difficult, but it does take thought and work. If you think that maybe flexible control might help you and you want to chat about it, do get in touch. Instagram me, message me, or Tweet me. We can walk it through.
When my older sister got married her first dance was to one of the cheesiest songs of the last ten years: “Little Things,” by One Direction. My other sister and I laughed when it came on; it was so typically surprising of our sister and her partner, who are full of dry wit and humour and have been through hell and high water between them, to express their feelings in this overt, emotional number from a teenage boy band. They sang tipsily to one another, and it was tender and lovely. For a moment, I almost forgot it was One Direction. Until the DJ started playing “You don’t know you’re beautiful,” and the Groom went bonkers. However, an unexpected consequence of that song choice has been that the words to the song always come back to me when I use the hashtag #thelittlethings on posts about mental health:
“All these little things, it’s you they add up to.”
That is the wonderful thing about practising flexible control and the great hope of the whole process: it’s cumulative. All of the hard work we do, all of the little things that we do to challenge our controlling tendencies and face our anxiety and fear, it all adds up to something. Recovery.