By: Cooper-John Trapp, Staff Writer
Most of the time, I love taking exams. As strange and unpopular of a sentiment that may be, I get a thrill from sitting down with pen and paper and competing against the clock.
Declaring a major can change that. A familiar scene plays out – I walk into the classroom, talk about failing with the rest of the students who are frantically cramming till the exams are handed out – but this time, something is different. I look at the exam and my thoughts wander – to failing. This time, my mind goes blank and stress floods my system. ‘If I fail this test, I won’t pass the class. I’ll lose my scholarship. I’d have to drop out. Then I’d never get a job. Then I’ll never…’ My mind falls into the rabbit hole of what-ifs.
Yet, after eight long years of introspection, I know really it is not stress I feel. It’s fear. Fear of losing control.
Hello, my name is Cooper-John Trapp and I am a control freak. I need control and I seek it through people, possessions and perceptions. The purpose of this column is to explore topics relating to college life. This piece explores the idea of control in the college setting: why we seek it, how we seek it, how it impacts our education and what to do about it.
Dr. Daniel A. Bochner, author of The Emotional Toolbox: A Manual for Mental Health, believes one root of the need for control comes from, “the experience of being dominated as a child, and the observation that becoming dominant is the only solution for overcoming a feeling of extreme submission.” Another, he states, is the experience of “the child who tries desperately to please a difficult parent with perfection in all they do, but who never feels they have actually succeeded.”
Goodtherapy.org states, “Control issues may be related to: traumatic or abusive life experiences; a lack of trust; anxiety; fears of abandonment; low or damaged self-esteem; a person’s beliefs, values, and faith; perfectionism and the fear of failure; and emotional sensitivity and the fear of experiencing painful emotions.”
Asserting control and power makes us feel safe. People want to feel that they won’t be rejected, abandoned, threatened or ridiculed. In my head, control protects me from my emotions. A disdainful look, a poor grade on my paper, or thought of exclusion slips by my firewall and renders me anxiously lost.
In response, we attempt to control others, ourselves, or our environment as we chase away feelings of powerlessness. Self-destructive actions often result from that constant need to combat helplessness, such as abusive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse and behavioral compulsions.
That exam I ended up getting a B on. The other result? I changed my major to avoid taking classes like that again.
Issues of control can present themselves at any stage of life, but the undergraduate years are particularly likely times. The first-year transition is easy to understand. Parents are out of the picture, but usually their expectations are not. There is little enforced structure and it is harder to reach out for help with the hardships of life before trusting bonds are made at college. Experimentation with substances, sexual activity, relationships and conceptions of the future, absent the anchors of home life, (not that I am advocating moving back with the folks by any stretch of the imagination) increase the uncertainty that helps fuel controlling behaviors.
When we feel out of control we either isolate ourselves to control our surroundings or we look to control others. However, there are things we can do to counter those issues. Seeking a balance of structure and having a daily or weekly routine provides a reassuring path to follow while uncertainties and underlying emotions play themselves out. Creating social bonds and networks provide some of the same stabilizing effects.
Setting aside time to personally reflect can provide helpful insights. What areas of your college life can you see being impacted? Are you in a controlling relationship – or, are you being controlling in your relationship? Do you find yourself skipping class for reasons traced back to spheres of control? Do you go get hammered after getting stressed? Reflecting on ways to get control in a healthy, constructive way pays dividends.
Finally, I’ve found that seeking to understand why I seek control inspires me to work on those root causes. Personally, I recommend reading literature on child developmental psychology. The book that helped me the most is Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder. In their exploration of ADD, the authors described the environmental and familiar conditions that the disorder to develop. Any book that discusses how a mental health condition originates will help provide an explanation to our own personal story.
It may come from our parents or any number of traumatic dynamics. There is no use to pretend it didn’t happen, and that everything is OK.
Throughout all of it, wherever you are in the process, know that none of this is due to moral character or moral defects. You are what you are because of your experiences. If you are on the path to progress, that is all we could ever ask. Regardless of your exam score.