Control vs Connection: Deep Thoughts, Deep Breaths

As I was running over a long lunch break today, I tried to focus on one principle: Connection over control. This concept has been ringing in my thoughts since I listened to Brene Brown and Oprah talk about it on the Super Soul podcast. In Dr. Brown’s new book, Atlas of the Heart, she delves into emotions and language, and this was one example that I could immediately relate to in a dozen ways. She described a concept of “near enemies” and “far enemies,” said that the far enemy of connection was disconnection, which is obvious, but the “near enemy” of connection is control. It’s sneaky and dangerous, and I began to see it everywhere I looked.

People often have a hypersensitive radar for whenever “connection” energy creeps into “control” territory. Reflexively, with no conversation exchanged , the relationship shifts. Sometimes this is a mistake; it was only perceived attempts at control, which may have been rooted in pragmatism. Nevertheless, the relationship wobbles into adversarial territory.

Feeling every bit of the struggle of my out-of-shape legs and lungs carrying me past 2 miles, I began to think about my own struggles with perfectionism, anxiety, and shame. Shame was the atmosphere of my upbringing, and I shielded myself from it by strategically performing and connecting. To comply with expectations, I constantly wrestled to control myself. All that self-control helped me achieve every big goal I targeted–until it didn’t.

At 30 years old, in the middle of a tough surgical residency, my coping skills failed spectacularly. I would push myself intensely with self control, get overwhelmed with anxiety and start avoidance patterns, then make up for it with more intensity and self control, on and on the snowball grew. I had the profound experience of completely losing myself when ultimately, I flipped a switch from being self-controlling to self-disconnecting. The shift was palpable. I recognized it, and I was afraid. I was despondent, but also living with white-hot self-contempt. I did not know how I could endure this pain for the rest of my life.

Happily, with lots of work and help I came back to myself, but 6 years later I am still unpacking that experience. Today on the trail, thinking about Dr. Brown’s commentary, I focused hard on connection versus control in my workout. First of all, I was working out without internal coercion or guilt; I really felt like it! Nice day, big gap between cases, good steady energy level…getting started was no sweat. Since adolescence, I’ve struggled with streaks and guilt-ridden gaps in my fitness routines, so lately I’d been focusing on gentle consistency.

I tried to connect with my body, with the trail, with the breeze. On the way back, I was really tired and I focused on a spot in the distance and ran to it. Thinking back to the grueling workouts I’ve put myself through, the marathon I ran, the exam studying, the applications, the money I needed to save, the waist size I needed to maintain, on-and-on I thought of unbelievable amount of pressure I had put on myself to hit goal after goal.

I was thinking about self-discipline and self-control; they weren’t the same, right? If I wisely chose a goal, my self-discipline should create the consistent effort and ecosystem for me to achieve it. However, I had so often forced myself to persevere, despite inadequate skills, training, habits, routines, support, mentorship, etc. Yes, I got there most of the time, but at brutal costs. And a few times I failed; no wonder. I was emotionally and spiritually wounded. In fact, I literally had times when I was physically ill and wounded along that way. I looked at a marker post, and thought about all these things, and how there was a part of me that could sprint toward it and completely ignore my body’s signals. Instead of doing that, which I had done so many times before, I decided to walk, and show back up tomorrow knowing I would not dread it and I would not hurt myself.

Now that I have internalized this lesson, I see its repercussions in global health matters. How often does a humanitarian project veer from connection to control? How many humanitarian disasters sprout from the same dysfunctional tension? How do we ensure that our relationships with local stakeholders, patients, and donors, remain firmly in the “connection” realm?

If a project is stipulated on access to local resources, that’s control, not connection. If it’s a thinly disguised attempt to proselytize, that’s definitely control. And it won’t take much for that relationship to fall into disconnection, when projects get monopolized and the original purpose is totally lost. Anyone who has worked in charity or non-profit projects should be able to recall an example; the majority of projects are dysfunctional.

Honing the skills to recognize, and accurately communicate, when a relationship is one of true connection on a micro-level will help us solve macro-level problems. Recognizing when we are connected to ourselves, and our own values, is a pre-requisite to building authentic community, and doing no harm.