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I Used to Have a Handle on Life But It Broke

Six Power Solutions for Women With Too Much To Do



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About The Book

Working 24/7 and STILL
Can't Get It All Done?

Then don't! Most women think that the only way to manage the mounting chaos in their lives is to take control and organize, organize, organize. No wonder we have overwhelming to-do lists that leave us feeling exhausted and powerless! But in I Used to Have a Handle on Life but It Broke, Mary LoVerde has a better idea.
Showing us that the opposite of control is not chaos but contentment, LoVerde demonstrates how to counter the natural urge to assume responsibility for everything. In place of frustrating and futile controlling strategies, she gives readers straightforward techniques for maintaining their energy and keeping their balance no matter what life throws their way. Recognizing that we often confuse control with power, LoVerde delineates six solutions that will help women change from striving for control to thriving with true power:
1. Pose good questions
2. Pay attention
3. Predict your Achilles' heel
4. Partner with women
5. Pause before judging
6. Position yourself
With her trademark sense of humor and the compassionate voice that has earned her such a strong national following, Mary LoVerde shows us that the result of letting go is not a black hole of dirty laundry and unpaid bills, but a life that is light, free, and joyful.


Chapter One: Give It Up

Controlling Our Lives

If only i could get a handle on my life. Then I'd finally be able to have some time for myself, the kids, and my husband. I'd read the stack of books on my nightstand, put the piles of photos sitting in their envelopes in albums, and cook healthy meals. If I could just get a grip, I'd solve the problems at work, keep a cleaner house, and pay more attention to my aging parents. With just a little more leverage over my life, I could run the cat to the vet, the kids to dance and debate practice, and the tax forms to the IRS. I could volunteer more. I could lose weight, I could...well, you know, if I could just get control...

As women, we feel responsible for just about everything. And when we put "everything" on a to-do list, it makes for a very full day. As a result, we are exhausted, overwhelmed, and inundated, with no relief in sight. We tried to solve the too-much-to-do-not-enough-time-to-do-it problem by going faster, and now even at warp speed, we're getting further behind. A law of physics tells us that it takes four times as much energy to go twice as fast. No wonder we're tired.

Even those superwomen who can fly faster than a speeding minivan recognize that rushing no longer works. So we have switched gears. Our new favorite strategy is to "simply" get a handle on it all. Yes, yes, that's it! If only we could be in charge, get a grip, gain control of the situation, then we could finally live the good life.

I wondered if this new approach was working, so I began to observe women I believed were successful. I heard Linda Ellerbee, TV journalist and author, deliver an insightful, witty speech detailing her life as a divorcee, mother of two children, recovering alcoholic, and breast cancer survivor. She regaled us with tales of her firings, her career moves, and her leap of faith when she (against conventional wisdom) started her own company, Lucky Duck Productions. Then she said one line, and I didn't hear another word she said: "If I had predicted at any given moment in my life what I would be doing in the next five years, I would have been wrong 100 percent of the time."

My brain froze. Here was a tremendously respected and accomplished woman who used her power to get what she wanted in life, and yet she knew her success was not due to having a firm grip on what would happen next. She held no illusions that she was in control and seemed very comfortable with that truth.

I was intrigued and filled with hope. I reasoned that perhaps I too have enough power to get what I want in my life without forcing, pushing, and obsessing. Maybe getting a handle on my life isn't the answer.

I became very curious about the concept of control and the role it plays in our lives. Does striving for control help or hinder us? Does anyone ever really get control, and if so, what is the price? Do I need to be in control of my life to live the way I want to? What does control have to do with being a powerful woman? I read books, interviewed women from all walks of life from around the world, conducted focus groups, led seminars, and listened at dinner parties. Here's what I learned about control.

We Say We Want Control

Our language suggests that control is a big deal. I've listened to how we describe ourselves when we are out of balance. Women talk a lot about their need for control. Rarely do I get through an entire conversation without hearing something about it:

"As soon as I get things under control..." This is an odd phrase when you think about it. What things? Under where?

"I've got to get on top of things..." "I've got to get to the bottom of this..." We are very busy swarming around. How can we be on both the top and the bottom of everything?

"I need to get it nailed down." One of my friends quipped in reply: "I nailed it once; I just can't remember what I nailed it to."

"I've got a death grip on it, and it is still beyond my control!" "Death grip" is a telling phrase.

When a culture has an important concept, it creates many words to describe it. You may have heard that the Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. Well, if the number of descriptive words is any reflection, control plays a big role in our lives. Our language has everything from birth and mind control to nuclear arms and gun control. Use the word control, and nearly everyone has a strong opinion and is ready and willing to share it.

We're supposed to control our distractions, our dogs, and our dandruff. We want controlling interest. We're incensed when parents won't control their kids, and just watch what happens to some people when they can't find the remote control. Think of a life without control-top panty hose. There is no question about it: We want control!

Research Supports My Hypothesis

Our intense desire for control is not something I dreamed up. Yankelovich, Inc., one of the premiere national marketing research firms, reports that throughout most of the 1990s, the consumer's emphasis was on control. For example, eight out of ten women agreed with the statement, "It's important to me to feel in charge of each and every part of my life," and six out of ten women agreed with the statement, "Lately I find I'm looking for ways of getting more control over my life."

Yankelovich, Inc., even created a framework for understanding how we deal with control, which they called Strategic Control. Within this framework, we use three main strategies:

Jettison things that simply aren't important, or at least not worth the effort.

Delegate those things that can be delegated.

Control those things that remain.

According to their research, consumers were not, in the last decade, inclined to jettison (let go of anything), "as notions of 'sacrifice' and 'compromise' were increasingly unacceptable. Given a fundamental lack of trust, delegation was equally difficult. The results: massive 'to-do' lists and high stress levels."

But a ray of hope shines through. A new pattern is emerging -- an improved approach to managing tasks in our lives and, more important, managing our most precious resources: time and energy. I smiled when I read that the Yankelovich researchers have called the new approach "lightening up," which means, in part, not overanalyzing every decision and instead putting a continuing focus on our quality of life now and a decreased focus on accomplishments and duty. Perhaps we are ready to learn a new way.

Women Are Different

As we begin to adapt new strategies and tap into our feminine powers, we must understand that women belong to a special club. Control is often perceived as a male issue, but women have a unique perspective on it. We deal with stress and the feelings of responsibility differently from men because we react to a wider range of outside stressors. We have more on our plate and therefore more control issues. Ronald Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, asked 166 married couples to keep a daily stress diary for six weeks. He found women feel stress more often because they take a more holistic view (or is it "whole-list-ic view?") of everyday life. "A man may worry if someone in his immediate family is sick; his wife takes on the burdens of the whole neighborhood. Men take care of one thing [at a time]," he says. "Women put the pieces together."

I know just what he means. I go to bed at night worrying about the starving children who need my leftovers. I lie awake mentally rehearsing the four things I did not get done (and are therefore out of my control) and ignore the 4,752 things I did do. I try to figure out how my friend can save her marriage, my kids can learn the value of money, and we can get the filmmakers to decrease violence. By 2:00 A.M. I'm trying to solve the trillion-dollar national debt and the Middle East peace crisis. My nights are busy.

One day I got this anonymous fax:

Memo from God:

Do not feel totally, personally, irrevocably responsible for everything. That's My job.

I never did find out who faxed it, but apparently the sender thought I was taking this control issue just a little too far. I do feel totally responsible for everything. This is, of course, a heavy, and impossible, burden. I can't remember who told me the load was mine to carry, but I spend enormous amounts of energy, countless hours, and an infinite number of tears trying to control the things I cannot control. Most women I talk to feel the same. When I ask them about life balance issues, I always hear the same word:


Our Feminine Circuitry Predisposes Us

My female-wired brain is responsible for this nocturnal flight of ideas. Unlike men with their unifocus, I've got, just like the song says, "the whole wide world in my hands." Helen Fischer, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of The First Sex, writes that compared to men, women "tend to gather more data that pertain to a topic and connect these details faster. As women make decisions, they weigh more variables, consider more options and outcomes, recall more points of view, and see more ways to proceed. They integrate, generalize, and synthesize." Perhaps that explains why my husband can sleep so peacefully beside me while I ponder the problems of the universe.

The Difference Isn't Black and White; It's Gray and White

I am fascinated with the breakthrough research in neuroscience that suggests explanations for our different abilities. Compared to men, it's not just our hips that are bigger. Our prefrontal cortexes (where we organize thoughts and can think contextually) are larger, and the bridges that connect the right and left hemispheres of our brains, the corpus callosum and the anterior commissure, are both significantly larger too. When we solve problems, different parts of our gray and white matter fire up. Our neurons are more densely packed in some areas than they are in the male brain. We use both sides of our brain for talking, giving us the linguistic edge over men. Our senses of touch, smell, vision, taste, and hearing are all more finely tuned. So when we're told to "use our brain," we really do, even more so than men.

By neurological design, women are uniquely physiologically, genetically, and psychologically well equipped to use the strategy of control. But a strength overused can become a weakness. As I will show you in the following chapters, our natural talents sometimes feed our urge to control in ways far different from men. We multitask until we drop because our brains will. We may overnurture our children because our neurons respond more intensely to emotion. Long-term planning is a function of our larger, highly efficient prefrontal cortex, so controlling the future sounds reasonable to us. But our innate tendencies don't have to get us into trouble. As we will learn, there's a better way than striving for control to get what we want.

We Control Out of the Goodness of Our Hearts

I was convinced about our gender's desire for some sense of control the day I received this e-mail from my friend who is married, the mother of a one year old, and an entrepreneur. She is wildly successful in all of her roles but exhausted from gripping too tightly:

Dear Mary,

I joke with my friends that if the world would relinquish all of its power to me, it would be a better place. On some level, and certainly on stressful days, I really believe it. If efficiency and order were all life was about, I would be Queen of the World, at least in my mind. I am not nearly as efficient and orderly as I think I could be if all these people I care about would get out of my way. But that is the rub, isn't it? Life is nothing without the people, and yet it is the people who make it so out of order.

When I am most stressed, and that is pretty frequently these days, I want control. I crave it, demand it, and strive for it. I feel if I could just get things back in control and get a handle on them, then I could prevent the pit in my stomach from coming back. When I am stressed, control seems like the logical answer. As I sit here, I cannot fathom a better one.

My friend Barbara has three children and is the opposite of me when it comes to control. She runs from it. She is laid back and easy. She always says she tries not to plan too far ahead. She frequently forgets things (like a diaper for her infant on an airplane trip) and just brushes it off. I used to judge her, but now I see that she is clearly happier (at least happy more frequently) than I am, and she feels vibrantly alive. I feel like a slug most of the time. But I just can't; I can't let go of the reins. I feel like it will all fall apart. I feel responsible for running everything in my sphere.

My husband would have a better life if I were not so control oriented (a.k.a. picky, demanding, aware) because he has a more relaxed approach to life. But when I am in my control mode, I tell myself it is for all of us to have a better life.



Renee speaks for many women. Wanting control is natural and normal. If we are responsible for everything, it only makes sense that we should be in control. For most of us, getting control represents order, security, and instant gratification. Out of the goodness of our hearts, we sometimes use control as a means to give others what we think they need. We are not controlling in the sense of a control freak or manipulative soap opera vixen. Since going faster didn't work, we're simply developing behaviors to stop us from spinning out of control. We have an arsenal of control techniques. We worry more, sleep less, avoid change, strive for perfection, and cry. We feel guilty and sometimes use guilt tactics on others "to keep them safe." We create enormous unrealistic expectations and almost kill ourselves trying to make them a reality. We sometimes try to please at too great a cost or force issues that don't matter.r

On bad days, we withhold affection, sex, or money. We stop listening or use the silent treatment. We can be stubborn and refuse to forgive. We don't have to search far to remember the last time we nagged, yelled, or had a meltdown moment. Sometimes we appear unreasonable. I can't be the only woman who has threatened a teenager with a week of no hair spray just so I could feel in control.

But these strategies don't work the way we want them to.

We Try to Control Anyway

Most of us feel it's our duty to get a handle on our health. We eat organic vegetables, drink protein shakes, and kick-box until we ache -- and we still get breast and colon cancer and cringe as we watch beautifully fit FloJo, the Olympic gold medalist, die a premature death. We can improve our well-being and increase our odds of living a long life, but we cannot control our mortality.

We put a lot of focus on controlling our jobs. We learn a trade or earn a college degree, collaborate, and "manage our total quality" -- and then watch valued colleagues take severance packages. Some of us get a surprise pink slip, often for a job too well or too expensively done. No matter how indispensable we become or how brilliant our ideas, we can't control the business world.

We expect to control our wealth. We save, invest, borrow, and buy mutual funds by the truckloads. We collect credit cards, trade on-line and become dot-com-ers. After riding a roller coaster with the falling yen, diving NASDAQ, soaring college tuition, skyrocketing nursing home bills, and the amicable-turned-bitter divorce that wipes us out, we discover we can't buy control either.

While "vainly" trying to control our appearance we transplant, implant, and "liposuck." We laser, peel, inject, lift, tuck, and dye. Our alterations might make us look a bit better for a little while, but we get old anyway.

We try especially hard to control our children. We choose between breast and bottle, cloth and disposable, private and public. We become experts on the latest research about how and when to toilet train. We worry about quality time, feel guilty about missing the school play, and teach them how to get along in the world. In the end, our children learn to use the bathroom when they are good and ready (and not a minute sooner), become independent and self-reliant, and grow up to be young adults with very distinct ideas of their own on how to live life. We can guide, nurture, and love them, but if we think we can mold them into the people we want them to be, we are kidding ourselves.

We commit to our relationships "until death do us part." We learn Victoria's secret, explore who's from Venus and who's from Mars, and look forward to our Golden anniversary -- but more than 50 percent of us break up. Despite our focus, getting a handle on love relationships seems extremely elusive.

Our ultimate ambition is to control time. We let Mr. Franklin plan for us, and Ms. Palm pilot our projects. We set goals, write objectives, and devise mission statements. Time may be the stuff life is made of, but we can't stop it, and that makes it impossible to control it.

We spend our talents, energy, and fortunes trying to getting a handle on life, and yet the bottom line is that we really haven't controlled diddly-squat.

Don't get me wrong. I am not against low-fat diets, plastic surgery, credit cards, or sexy lingerie. I don't mind electronic devices that remind me how late I am. I'm on record as actually being in favor of early toilet training for the last child in the family. I believe in love. These things may contribute to the quality of our lives, but they won't give us control over our lives. And even if they did, trying to control our lives doesn't enrich them. The more we try to control, the poorer we actually become.

Our Pain Is Often Self-Inflicted

Feeling responsible for everything and trying to control all relevant factors can make us physically ill. We already recognize the long list of symptoms attributed to unrelieved stress, from headaches and insomnia to cancer and heart disease. We can't take this knowledge lightly. Jerry Adler in the June 14, 1999, issue of Newsweek writes, "Some people make a virtue of stress, under the mantra 'that which does not kill me makes me stronger.' But science shows this to be a lie. A whole new body of research shows the damage stress wreaks on the body: not just heart disease and ulcers, but loss of memory, diminished immune function and even a particular kind of obesity. That which doesn't kill you, it turns out, really does kill you in the end, but first it makes you fat."

The stress from controlling can make me fat? Why didn't someone say so? Now I am listening!

The stress we inflict on ourselves by trying to get a handle on everything takes an emotional toll as well. We become angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, confused, and afraid. Sound familiar? Some might say these emotions put us in danger of losing our souls.

Enough already! you may be thinking. The question is, Why do we strive for control when we know it is physically and emotionally bad for us? The answer: Because we mistake control for strength. We believe in the unspoken conviction that if we are not in control, we are weak and will fail.

The falsehood here is confusing control with a satisfying life.

We also fear that "not in control" or "out of control" means our lives will become a dysfunctional three-ring circus. Who will watch to make sure the trapeze artists don't fall? Our fears are based on faulty notions. Watching the trapeze artists doesn't keep them from falling, and the nervous vigilance prevents us from enjoying the greatest show on earth.

The opposite of control is not chaos.

It is contentment.

We Don't Like to Admit We Control

Perhaps the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up and you are thinking, "How dare she imply I am controlling! What an insult!" If you are feeling uneasy about this idea, you are not alone. We deplore the thought that we might be controlling. It's so unfeminine and against our deeply held beliefs about how women should act. Our mothers told us to share, be nice, and take turns. It's important to understand that trying to control doesn't mean we're bad; it means we're coping, perhaps by overusing what comes naturally. We just want to get a handle on things.

I was discussing this topic at a dinner party, and one woman protested, "Well, honestly, I don't think I try to control." Her husband looked at her incredulously: "You have to be kidding! Name one thing in your life you don't feel responsible for?" She grinned sheepishly. We can't change what we refuse to recognize. The good news is that if we are willing to make even small adjustments in our thinking and our behavior, we will find a much better way to get what we need to be happier, healthier, and more powerful.

No One Likes It

A great reason to stop using control techniques is that no one likes to be controlled. Do you know anyone who likes it? Do your children, employees, spouse, or friends thank you for trying to be totally in charge of their lives? Striving for control does not endear you to anyone. In fact, it usually gets the opposite reaction. The harder you push, the more they rebel. Again, a law of physics reigns: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In your face or behind your back, you receive a big dose of "you can't make me."

I frequently hear the metaphor "holding the reins too tight," so I asked Wyatt Webb, director of the Equine Experience at the Miraval Spa in Tucson, to explain what happens to a horse when we do that. He said, "When we sit on the horse and squeeze ours legs, we send a signal that says, 'Move forward,' but if we're also pulling back on the reins, we're telling the horse to stop. The contradictory message leaves the horse with no place to go except straight up, and we get bucked off. Failure to give a horse its head means we give it no credit for even knowing how to walk. The animal needs its head for balance, and we cripple it with our urge to be in control. The horse lets us sit on its most vulnerable spot, its spine, and we don't honor that trust by allowing it to participate in a relationship." Wyatt's green eyes peered at me from under the brim of his cowboy hat, and he grinned. "Our horses weigh well over 1,000 pounds. You're not going to control the animal. The best you can hope for is to solicit its cooperation."

Our subjects may be significantly smaller, but Wyatt's eloquent explanation illustrates why controlling humans doesn't work.

Do We Ever Really Get Control?

One night I said to my discussion group, "We have no control. None. Nada. Zero. Zip." I heard the whole gamut of reactions. One woman retorted swiftly: "Don't insult me! Everyone knows you can't control anything. You're not telling me anything I haven't already experienced." For some, you would have thought I had just snatched away Linus's blanket. "You can't tell people that! I can control anything I want to...and I can prove it!" Then I was treated to a long rendition of what they could control. I grinned when they said they could control their kids. (I mumbled, "Sure, you can," under my breath.) Others, when asked to write a list of what they could control, jotted something down, stared into space for a minute, then crossed it out, jotted something else, and in a few minutes crossed that out too. One woman yelled, "For crying out loud, Mary, who is going to buy a book that says you can't control anything?" Another lamented, "But, Mary, your ideas are always so positive. What has gotten into you?" (Stick with me. This story has a happy ending.)

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not trying to control you. You will have your own ideas about what you can or should ultimately control. The concepts of control or power may mean something entirely different to you. You may think -- and that is exactly what I want you to do. Powerful women think. My goal is not to have you agree with me, but rather to help you examine the role control plays in your life and how it might be interfering with your power. I want to give you specific "works in real-life" solutions to make you an even more powerful woman.

I asked several of my friends to read the manuscript for this book, and one response made me laugh: "Mary, you need to tell the readers up front that you are not a self-righteous, fatalistic zealot so you don't scare them off. Reassure them early on that you're not a nut." Okay. I am not a nut (very often). If I had my druthers I'd start at Chapter Four and launch right into how to be more powerful. But you know how those pesky editors are -- always insisting the author reveal what the book is about in the first chapter. It makes sense to begin by exploring what we are doing and why, whether it works, and what a better approach might look like. So, in summary, here are the results of my research on women and control:

• Our language suggests that we want control, and data support that we strive for it, though we view it much differently than men do.

• We feel responsible for just about everything, perhaps in part because our brains are wired that way.

• The vast majority of us are not control freaks; we agree to take the job out of the goodness of our hearts.

• Our strategies don't give us the control we crave, but we pour lots of energy into them anyway, which often results in self-inflicted pain.

• We're deeply insulted when someone implies we're using controlling techniques. Ironically, we use these techniques on others even though we can't think of anyone who likes them.

My analysis of the data? We are fighting a futile battle. So much of our fretting-about, expecting-to, and planning-on energy is wasted. Yearning for control doesn't give us the freedom, peace, and connection we all want. It doesn't satisfy the sense of security and order we crave. It makes us physically ill, mentally exhausted, and spiritually drained. Striving for control doesn't work very well or very often. It does not make us powerful.

The Alternative

You may be asking yourself, "If I am supposed to stop striving for control, what is the alternative?" I remember a discussion I had with a psychiatrist friend. She had a patient addicted to cocaine and struggling to recover. My friend said the most difficult aspect of getting a patient to give up her addiction is finding a substitute that makes her feel as good. In this book, you will learn about six powers you can use to counter the urge to control and substitute strategies that will make you feel not just good but even better.

But I Am Afraid -- and Skeptical

I was too. If I thought having control was feasible, believe me, as the original Queen Bee of Control herself, I would write a book on how to get more of it. Hard as it is, we must accept the fact that striving for control is not only counterproductive, draining, and a waste of time; being in control all the time is impossible. Sustaining it ranks right up there with Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It would be nice if those things were real, but they're not. The good news is that striving for control is a bad habit you can break. I realize that relinquishing control may seem like a foreign concept right now, maybe even a really bad idea. Perhaps you're busy making a list of things in your head that you can control. Habits die hard.

If you have read the Contents page, and the chapters titled "Slow Up," "Wise Up," and "Pair Up" make you want to Throw Up, take heart. This book is a leap of faith. You'll have doubts and maybe even experience fierce resistance. You might make some progress and then relapse. Some concepts may be initially hard to buy into. Go easy. If you keep an open mind, I promise not to ask you to give up anything that is worth keeping. Together we will walk through the process.

If your mind is racing and you are wondering what these six powers are and how they work and why I don't just tell you now, may I politely say, "Hey! Stop trying to control my chapter!" You have my word that we'll get to all that. In the following chapters, you will learn about how you can move from striving for control to thriving with power.

Some months ago Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote in Parade magazine, "We didn't design the seas, so we can't control the currents; and we didn't design the boat, so we can't make it impregnable, but we can steer to our own satisfaction, and let go of the rest. Looking at it that way, maybe the job we have to do isn't so overwhelming."


Copyright © 2002 by Mary LoVerde

About The Author

Photo Credit: Kermit

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (April 11, 2002)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684854199

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