I love lists. To-do lists, short-term, long-term, lists of accomplishments, lists that track data or statistics… oh I love them and I know I’m not the only one. Most of us who are like this don’t necessarily talk too much about it though, we know we’re the minority and it’s almost a closet passion. I’ve met a few kindred spirits though and learned that there are incredibly similar reasons behind our love of lists. Our gathering and tracking (and yes, sometimes hoarding) of information and data makes us feel secure and grounded – safe. They make a person feel like they can clearly see, assess, measure – control – everything in our reach and even those things beyond our current reach. Goals and dreams for the future even factor into the never-ending compilation of lists and spreadsheets. So does looking back and tracking where we’ve come from in so many areas of life. From work performance and tasks to personal activity, health and fitness tracking and goals to budgets, it can all be sorted and tracked and analyzed – almost obsessively so. “Archive” is a word that gives people like me the warm fuzzies – but we’ll almost never admit that, except to another like-minded spreadsheet-loving freak. I am not exaggerating when I say I have budgets archived from at least 10 years ago and I can tell you exactly how much I spent in a coffee shop in October 2003 ($41.85). Want to know what the postal code was for the apartment that I lived in for a few months in 1990? I have that too. What was my body fat percentage in March 2013, just one second while I pull that up. This goes beyond the usual grocery list on the fridge type of behaviour that is what most people limit themselves to – and I know that. Being in control and task oriented is a good thing, even necessary depending on how you live your life. Yet what I’m looking at here is something other than what would be considered “normal”. An easy analogy: having a drink with friends when you get together is all good; secretly drinking alone every night until you pass out is not healthy behaviour. Same idea but without the alcohol….
So why is it that some people are so bound by lists and the need to collect and track information? Any behaviour that is habitual must serve a need to be continued. The question then is how is it serving a need – and more importantly – if you want to change it – what is that need?
Some introspection this past week has me pondering the reasons behind it all. It’s not the first time that I’ve thought “what would happen if I just stopped?” Would the world stop spinning if I chose to “delete forever” from my drive? Would my ability to function within my safety net of knowing everything be affected? It’s these thoughts that drive me to peruse the “why”. It’s actually something I contemplate every time someone in my life points out that these lists and compilations aren’t always the healthiest of behaviour patterns for me.
Breaking it down, It comes down to two very separate and distinct motivators. From the people who I’ve encountered, and my own experience, these reasons exist with very blurred lines of separation and aren’t mutually exclusive.
The first is control. The control that a person has over their lives, or the illusion of control, serves a massive need to feel secure and stable. It is personal safety 101 and it is one of our most basic, primal needs that we search to have met. If you grow up experiencing life with trauma, abuse, neglect, instability or a feeling of not being secure – this is where it can manifest from. From a sense of not being able to control even the most basic of your needs like personal safety or stability in your environment we learn coping mechanisms. Some people put up walls so thick and high that their own internal space becomes the only space they need or want to feel that security. They dissociate, find a secure place inside of themselves and hunker down for the long haul, sometimes for life. Others turn outwards, looking to obsessively control any aspect that they can. For these people, when they start to have control over some areas of their lives, they exert it stringently and with an iron fist. Welcome to homes that are never cluttered or untidy, bookshelves arranged by colour or author or book size, closets that are micro-organized. Lives that are lived scheduled to the minute and smartphones that are linked to every calendar imaginable for cross referencing. This type of behaviour is something that can be a healthy characteristic to possess. It’s when it creeps into needing to control other people’s actions (or reactions) that it can get messy and toxic. In teen years, or even younger, this control shows up as eating disorders and other forms of self harm. You can’t control if someone is abusing you but you sure as hell can decide to not eat or to secretly hurt yourself with blades. You exert dominance over the one thing you can; your body.
Which brings me to the next option for “why”. Closely linked but different.
You grow up, move out and get away from the external influences that you sought to wrestle control from. Now you are competent and in control and perfection in action… Unless you aren’t. Instead of your mother or father or society inflicting the hurt or telling you that you aren’t good enough or you are a failure, you learn to (outwardly at least) shake that off and be strong and independent! Yet the firmly entrenched and expected feeling of being not good enough or “wrong” somehow is – sadly – a comfortable way to feel. As dysfunctional as that sounds, it’s what is the most normal and it’s been the most consistent feeling in your life for so long that it actually feels better when you feel badly. Messed up, but not uncommon unfortunately. So, what better way to punish or hurt yourself (and create that familiar, if unhealthy, feeling) than by being the one to set up the parameters for how you measure up? This is an easy one to hide from even yourself though. It very often masquerades as “good” and “healthy” to the person doing it, even motivational. These types of behaviours are routinely even praised and encouraged by others. You feel accomplished and organized and you are the envy of your friends who can never find the tax papers they need or who run out of socks because they let their laundry pile up in the corners of their cluttered rooms. You give yourself a big pat on the back for having it all so together.
Looking deeper though, you’ll see the patterns of reactionary behaviour that go with this type of behaviour and tracking and list making. You know the exhaustion that comes from always needing to be perfect and the need to have everything around you perfect. You know that holding onto those spreadsheets of weekly or monthly goals not quite met sends you into an emotional spin. You know that every time you analyze what you consider a failure to meet unachievable goals (that you set for yourself…see the loop here?) you feel badly. Yet you still do it. You have become the abuser and the abused, and in some twisted way, you know this and it’s better than it was because now at least, you are in control of it. You are the only one who can stop the cycle and be, ironically, in control of ending the cycle that eats away at your self-image and self-love. But how about instead of you being the one to control the hurt, you chose to stop it instead?
Whether it’s about control or self-harm, unhealthy actions need to be changed. It may sound simplistic and it is. Simple, but not easy. Being aware of the “why” is sometimes the first stop on the road to making changes. From there, you’re in control, in a good way.