BY AMY BUTLER SMITH

My mother is a strong survivor of a marriage with an alcoholic. She did a great job getting free and healthy from that relationship, and I had the privilege of learning from her as she learned new lessons for herself. Her lessons have become my life mantras that I whip out whenever they apply.

One of those is her epic question: “Whose behavior can you control?”

As with many great lessons, this one was born out of ridiculous childhood conflict, for example, fighting over the remote. It would look something like this… My brother is watching some horrid cartoon in the living room and gets up to get something from the kitchen, at which point I would slyly turn the channel to a much more reasonable cooking or design show. As you can predict, he would come back from the kitchen to see his beloved characters turned off and the conflict would begin.

This would often result in me running to mom and saying, “Mom! Tell Matt to stop watching the TV. I want to watch it.” My wise mother would often ask, “Whose behavior can you control?”

The answer to this question is that I can only control my own behavior.

I cannot control what boring show Matt wants to watch or if he wants the remote back. But I can control how I act in the situation. She was leading me to realize that my contribution to the conflict was just as offensive as my brother’s. At which point, I would go back and apologize to my brother for being rude and give him the remote back. All is well in the world!

(Side note: This worked really well until we realized that we could equally seek revenge by pretending to be the bigger person, when really we were trying to trick the other person into giving the other person the remote. That would look like this… 
Amy: Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were done watching. Here, you can have the remote.
Matt: No, no, I got up, you should keep watching. 
Amy: Honestly, I don’t need to watch. You should watch. 
Matt: It’s fine. Really. You should watch. 
It sounds like we’re being polite, but it’s really a deeply rooted psychological game to see who will cave first and be selfish so that the other person can feel morally superior. Nice, right?)

But as I grew up, I continued to get into situations where someone else was treating me in a way that I wasn’t happy with. In high school, a group of girls wore black to school on the day that I got back together with my boyfriend because “he had died to his own happiness.” That was… hurtful… to say the least.

But, mom’s good advice came in again. I had no control over what they did or how they treated me, but I could control how I responded and reacted. 

I think my mom learned this wisdom through wanting to control my dad’s relationship with alcohol. When someone we love has an addiction, the only thing we want in the world is to take that addiction away.

We see the joy that is possible on the other side of dependency and we want to push that person toward the joy. Sometimes it works! We can convince someone to join a support group or go to rehab, only for them to fall off the wagon again within days or weeks. I think that is often because the person is taking that action only for us. If it isn’t an action they’re choosing for themselves, it isn’t going to stick. Someone can only get healthy if they want to get healthy, which is not something we can control. 

What we can control is how we respond to the situation. We can get ourselves out of harm’s way. We can do the things that make us feel strong. We can share our feelings when we want someone to know how their choices are impacting us. We cannot control another person, but we can control ourselves.

This leads to an interesting line of questioning… Whose behavior am I trying to control? What would it mean for me to release control of that person? What about my behavior do I need to better control?

Write your answers down, share them with a friend, or share them with me!

Stay tuned for more in this series, Lessons from My Mother.

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