Week 2: Self-Regulation and Self-Control
“Author/Illustrator”, the older of my two daughters, was looking at my face from her loft bed the other evening. As she traced her finger across the skin between my eyebrows, she asked me, “Mommy, how long does it take to get those deep wrinkles in your forehead?”. At first, I had a flash of annoyance, but her question came from a place of innocence; just kid-type discovery, non-judgmental and curious. I smiled, thought about all the witty, snarky comebacks I could say, and then simply responded with “Forty-four years and some months sweetie.” I am my forehead wrinkles, and they convey much more than my age.
As I thought about those wrinkles, and how many of them had come from my career experiences, (along with all the gray hairs that I wear less proudly and color blondish every few months), I felt a mix of satisfaction and disappointment. Very early on in my social work leadership role, I was admonished for letting my frustration and disbelief at the failures of the child welfare system show on my face. Over time, I improved my “poker face” in meetings, and put my outer expression of emotion “in check”, but the brow furrowing still happened and the feelings were still within me. Each passing year brought worry and concern for the people I was responsible for protecting and leading. The duty of ensuring young people felt loved and cared for while moving through the foster care system; safety, inclusion and professional growth for the people working within our agency; fiduciary for county, state and federal government entities and ethical oaths to the profession of social work. I managed myself, and was recognized for it.
However, is self-control and self-regulation always beneficial? Would we do better letting out our real thoughts and feelings? Communicating our most critical messages needs to be done with passion, emotion, respect and thoughtfulness. Does expressing ourselves in reserved, contained ways minimize the opportunity to fully convey the magnitude of what needs to be done? On the other hand, I’ll be running an 11K trail race next week. It is the longest distance I will have competed in - ever. I plan to run hard, have fun and finish happy. Self-control helped get me to this place too. How many opportunities are missed or achieved due to our regulating behavior? Sometimes finding our way in the dark can turn out better than being blinded by the sunglare.
A year ago, I did not have any running aspirations. In fact, the 5:30 AM walks were a desperate measure to pull myself into each day with something that felt good - attempting to feed either of my two wolves? That origin story is definitely suspect, but my struggle to reduce the impact of trying to make things better; productive channeling of anger just wasn’t cutting it anymore. One controllable action that was entirely up to me. Walk. Alone. Without noise. After soul-crushing ends to the previous two years, January came with new workplace “blows” in the form of dismantling my recently assembled team. When you share your true vision and are met with disregard, it fuels a deep anger that explodes like molten lava - massive eruptions spewing high into the sky. However, I did not quit on the spot. Thank you self-control. It was more of a slow oozing flow that seemed endless in its ability to burn through everything, including me. 1. Feelings contained - check. 2. Neutral-ish face - check.
Instead of submitting my notice, I walked in the dark to keep the lava semi-contained. My body felt free in the cold air each winter morning; a damping of the volcanic heat ready to erupt within me. I used my strength of self-control to put movement at the top of my list. It allowed me to show up for my day in a better mindset. We often struggle to acknowledge that we must be our priority. I spent time strategizing ways to think positively about my work environment. I joined committees to support well-being within the agency, pulled back on involvement outside of the agency, opened myself up even more to ongoing change, found new ways to increase revenue and decrease expenses, kept showing up to help solve agency problems and stayed calm in meetings that often highlighted sexist, biased decision-making. I led with integrity, which eventually, brought me to the unexpected and hardest decision I ever had to make. I can no longer stay here in good faith.
Much of this comes to mind in light of the recent murder of a young man in foster care whose disappearance went mostly unaddressed, until the murder of a foster parent allegedly by a young man placed in her home for just a few days. I wish that this was the first time I had direct knowledge of a young person growing up in the foster care system who eventually came to their breaking point ending in someone’s death. Unfortunately, a very similar act was committed by a young man I knew just over a year ago. The tears stopped coming long ago when learning about these tragic endings; not due to a lack of sadness, but to the decades of exposure to physically and emotionally heartbreaking situations. You might say it is numbness, but I am not numb. I feel it quite deeply; worked tirelessly to create places where people believed they were loved and valued. Had a team that showered glimmers of hope on those who’d lost it completely. It is the recognition that not much separates each of us from the deeply wounded, abandoned teens lost in rage, for when we make choices that starve children and youth of love, compassion, caring and community, there will be tragedy, loss and violence. It is up to each one of us to find ways of creating something better. Point the finger back towards your chest, and answer the question “What can I do to improve the life of one child?”. Furrow your brow and look for ways to do more. Kindness spreads, it just moves a little slower.
My wrinkles are all hard-won battles within myself and with the outer world. They are the me of the past and present. My sadness doesn’t come in the form of tears anymore, it’s permanently etched onto my face, right beside the deepening lines of laughter and joy.