Updated on 02.28.11

Out of Control

Trent Hamm

This past week, I had a wonderful exchange with Maggie, an administrative assistant at a Fortune 500 company. In one email, Maggie said the following, which I found quite compelling.

The rest of my life feels completely out of control. My children are demanding, as are my bosses, and the demands change all the time. The kids are constantly making messes at home, undoing any house cleaning that I do. I seem to be learning a new software suite every month. I wake up some mornings feeling completely frazzled, while other mornings I feel completely wonderful.

One of the few times I feel genuinely in control of my immediate situation is when I’m shopping. I control what I buy, and when I leave that store, I feel that I’ve exerted control over that purchase. That sense of control feels very good. It feels like a bubble against the craziness of the rest of my life.

I think Maggie hit upon a very big element of why people today have a hard time getting a grasp on their spending and resent any suggestion of change in their spending habits. In the eyes of some, the ability to purchase is one of the last pieces of controllable freedom in their very chaotic life.

I can certainly see how my life was much like this for many years.

I would often feel very relaxed when I would go into a store or a coffee shop. In here, I was no longer responsible for children. I was no longer responsible for server uptime. I was no longer responsible for figuring out strange demands from clients.

A store became something of a place of solace. While I was in there, I would feel as though I was in control of what I did. I decided whether or not to make a purchase. I decided how long to stay. I decided whether or not to order another coffee or buy a second book. It was wholly my decision, which contrasted with most of the rest of my life where it felt as though the decision-making power was out of my hands.

Of course, such a perspective often developed a weird, negative relationship with the rest of my life. Because I had that brief solace, I would often feel more capable (at least in the short run) of dealing with day to day life. I could go back to work and make it through another day or two (even though I enjoyed the work, it was incredibly stressful at times). I could go home and handle a crying baby or whatever else was going on.

At the same time, though, I was spending money on unnecessary things, often money that we didn’t really have. I would often bust out the plastic in order to buy a new book or a video game.

That spending was actually prolonging the things that I had no control over. With every dollar I spent on something unnecessary, the tighter I became tied to the difficult pieces of my life.

With every unnecessary purchase, it became harder to even consider moving to another job, let alone another career path.

With every unnecessary dollar, it became harder to look at broad ways of improving our home life (like a larger home, for one).

My purchases were tying me to the very out-of-control things that seemed to define my life.

Every time I got a bit of a short-term perk from feeling in control because of a purchase, I contributed to extending the overall out-of-control feeling in the rest of my life.

I see this all the time in the lives of people around me, too. I know many people in my hometown area who “unwind” by drinking a few beers or buying something for one of their hobbies (like a new ATV). Their lives and the world around them are chaotic, but in those moments, they feel much more in control of things. They’re the only ones involved in the choice to have another beer or to ride around on that ATV.

Somewhere along the way, I made the choice to abandon that control cycle. I didn’t want to continue to feel that large swaths of my life were out of control, with me just along for the ride.

The first step, for me, was to look for areas of my life that I could control without spending money. For me, the big thing was to get organized. Much of my big interest in GTD was simply gaining a sense of control over as much of my life as possible. Similarly, whenever I encountered things in my life that I didn’t understand, like new technologies or new world events, I went to the library to learn more about them.

What I found was that the more in control of my life that I felt, the easier it was to make good spending decisions. I no longer felt like stores or coffee shops were my protective bubble against the chaos in my life. Instead, my home office area became that bubble – and I often found that I could stretch that chaos free zone out into various aspects of my life, from grocery shopping to child care to, eventually, my professional work.

The more good spending decisions I made, the less chaotic my life became. I felt more in control of my money. I gradually felt more in control of my professional life. We were able to move into a larger house, which helped with a sense of control over our personal lives.

What can you do if your life feels out of control and spending sometimes feels like your only solace?

First, adopt some personal organization tactics in your own life. Spend some time learning about things like GTD and voluntary simplicity. Cut back on some of the activities in your life.

Second, define a new area of solace in your own home. Make one room in your home a place where you feel like you can retreat and get your mind and spirit under control. For me, it was a home office.

From there, modify your spending habits and channel the money you save towards bigger life changes. If you’re spending far less than you were before, it becomes much easier to walk away from a high-stress job or to hire other forms of help to contain some of the edgier aspects of your life.

Life is too wonderful to go through feeling as though you’re completely out of control and simply riding a wave into tomorrow.

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  1. Shannon says:

    Do you typically “bust out” credit cards to pay for stuff?

  2. Dorothy says:

    So sad, especially since Maggie’s sense of “controlling” her purchases is illusionary. Given our constant bombardment with advertising, she’s just as manipulated in her buying as in the rest of her life.

    I’m particularly saddened by Maggie’s experience with her children. They shouldn’t be making messes; they should be helping (with Maggie’s supervision, training and encouragement) to make their house a happy, serene home. If a child is old enough to get a toy out to play with, he’s old enough to put it away. This means Maggie will have to organize the house and teach her children to help, not hinder, but the end result will be so rewarding, that she won’t need to find a false sense of self in senseless purchasing.

  3. Melissa says:

    How old are Maggie’s kids? I think most any working mom is going to feel that war between work duties, being a mom, and just having some time for herself.
    Just like Trent says, Maggie needs to carve out some space in her house for herself away from the kids and feel ok about using it. Dad needs to step up and watch the kids (if they are little like mine). If the kids are older they should be able to pick up their mess to some degree.

  4. Rebecca says:

    No where in Maggie’s statement does she hint that her spending is out of control or excessive. Just that she likes the control she has while shopping.

    My life is also chaos. 3 kids ages 6 and under, 2 who are autistic, mainly nonverbal, none of whom are totally toilet trained yet. I live in the house of scream. I enjoy doing our household shopping, it does give me a sense of order and control. I do it for a reason and it is very planed out. I know what I am buying, why I am buying it and how much I can spend in any given trip or month. It is very much in line with our budget and within our income limits. I enjoy it. And I don’t feel one bit manipulated by advertising. If anything adds turn me off to products.

    Perhaps for some this kind of thing is a compulsion and can be addictive and destructive if you are hiding it from others and racking up debt. But from that clip we can’t tell if Maggie is doing that or not.

  5. Sandy says:

    God…poor Maggie…I know just how she feels :-( I had 4 kids under 6 at one point, and to be honest – I can’t remember much of that time – I was exhausted. When the youngest was 4 I went back to part time work, and got no help from my husband – I had to work AND do all the other stuff I had been doing as well.
    Fast forward 8 years and my husband was not working due to an injury and did nothing but lie on the couch 18 hours a day….
    I left him. I also resented my kids – I felt used, by them and him. It’s a sad day when you resent your own kids. My counsellor said that was because I hadn’t been looking after myself, and had not had any support from my husband.
    Anyway, my point to all this is to say that when you start getting seriously hacked off by your own kids, then it’s a warning sign – you really need to get some help/support from somewhere, before you have a breakdown….

  6. LeahGG says:

    I think if you have very small kids, you’re always going to feel somewhat under assault. I certainly do with mine (3.5 and 2) Get one calm, and the other’s on a wrecking mission…

  7. deRuiter says:

    Dear Sandy, #5, thank you for your story. It’s a cautionary tale to LOOK CAREFULLY at the person with whom you are going to have children, BEFORE you produce the children, so you know whether you will have a partner or an anchor. After one or two children it seems that a person would be able to tell if the other person was a partner in the venture of child rearing, or an anchor, and if the latter , perhaps it would be better for all concerned, not to have more children? It’s also a good idea to ASE the other person befeore prouducing a child, what he thinks of the idea. Often men say, “No, I don’t want a baby.” and the woman gets pregnant anyway, thinking (in her dream world) “Oh, he’ll love the baby when it comes.” and in fact he resents the baby he told the woman he didn’t want.

  8. David says:

    I found that cooking the family meal each night was the control I needed and looked forward to. I come home from work, survey the fridge and pantry, craft a meal, serve it up, and finish off by emptying the sink.

  9. Sam says:

    I feel ya Maggie – I have kids & they know how to pickup & they are perfectly capable of it… but I am the only person on the planet who exspects them to pickup after themselves.

    At school they are told leave it for the janitor.

    At the sitter &/or daycare – they get waited on hand & foot.

    At relatives – I am demonized as they are told they should do nothing but play during their childhood.

    It is a parents job to raise kids to be competent adults & modern society really undermines that at all angles.
    If it helps any… look into “Love & Logic” (they have free newsletters) some of their one liners will really get a kid to clamp it and get moving.
    There’s some other free parent news letters i get for ideas however I’d need to dig since I delete them when I’m done reading them. If you wish me to post them I’ll compile a list :)

    Every night I come home to a trashed house & every night I get chewed & they try to get me to argue as they stumble around & pick it up. They don’t get dinner until everything is put away. Dinner is not served after 7. Period.

    My kids are all school age and I get to hear all the time about how their friends don’t have to do anything & the parents keep it clean (grumble).
    The sad part is while the kids pickup, many things are *not* put where they belong leaving me five different shades of frustrated when i need a misplaced item.

    Also, if it’;s at all helpful Maggie – when my kids demand anything (other then emergency care or an extra hand before something falls) the answer is automatically “no”. If they don’t like that then they can go to bed until they can be a lady or a gentleman. All request are to be made with “please”.

    I hope some amount of this is helpful. Also, no matter what, I send the kids to a night sitter once a month for my sanity. I force it to fit in the budget. It’s the only time I truly get a break.

  10. Susan says:

    I don’t have children and I could still relate to Maggie’s comment. I think her feelings are much more comment than anyone thinks. Life in this century is so difficult when we have so many “bosses”. It’s a survival response to look for something we can control and look for oasis’s of peace (even if they are mirages…ha).
    Anyway, thank you Trent for publishing her comments and for your suggestions. Getting organized is a great way to feel in control and not spend money. It also gives us tasks to focus on that give us a sense of making progress (Maggie’s children messing things up is the opposite).
    Good comments on this blog to help Maggie as well. I hope she reads them.

  11. Heather says:

    Also on a different note, try taking a daily multivitamin. I used to have big up and down days, now I’m a lot calmer. Who knows maybe you are deficient in iron or b vitamins. This can affect your mood.

  12. Jen says:

    I went through that long time ago but somehow, and really like out of the blue, I started feeling that this did not give me freedom but I felt I was somewhat stuck in a cycle where I would buy something and feel in control and then shortly again felt totally chaotic. I then realised that I was using shopping as a substitute for real intrinsic satisfaction. Once that sinked in, I never looked back. I feel so in control and it’s so wonderful to be able to say “I don’t need this” or “I won’t get this because it’s not that important”… it’s liberating because I feel that I don’t have the pressure to conform to other people’s standards of living (I felt that way in the past). Instead I feel happy about my life and how I’m living it, especially as I know that I walk at the beat of my own drum.

  13. Paula says:

    @#4 Rebecca: My son is also autistic (verbal). I only have one child though and thought our life was crazy enough, I don’t know how you do it with three children–two with special needs!

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