Steen mug shot


“I don’t paint dreams or nightmares; I paint my own reality.” Frida Kahlo

I just awakened from a bad dream: I’m eating lunch in an old country store and have some fresh berries for dessert. Two men approach me, and we exchange pleasantries. They comment on my hair and what a great job my stylist does. I tell them about Mallory and that she’s from Wisconsin but lives in Tennessee (because that’s what I do — try to promote people I think are wonderful at what they do).

When I look back at the berries, one of the guys has stirred a massive amount of sugar into the naturally sweet fruit. “I don’t eat sugar,” I say to the man, but in trying to be polite, I agree to take a bite. Like a scene in a scary movie, I suddenly find myself in my home where I am being held hostage by these same people. 

I recognized I was in a dream and began working as hard to get out of the dream as I was working to find a way out of their grasp. I woke up. Kahlo’s words are especially important when we finally awaken. I must paint my own reality, and so must you.

When I’m able, I wake up and think about my dreams immediately. I want to remember how I felt and figure out how it could help me have better days in the future. Equally important is looking at what has happened in my day that didn’t go quite as I’d have liked and threatens to keep me awake when I need to sleep. 

Ignoring what weighs on our minds won’t get us anywhere, except to another sleepless night. And for me, on this night, the message is clear: Whether it’s someone or something controlling me or it’s me controlling others, I need to wake up.  Where is that darn paintbrush to paint me out of this reality?

Researching the topic reveals that often those who are controlling are that way because they’ve been controlled in an area of their life. Maybe you’ve discovered freedom from an addiction, (that is a hard-fought battle) but demanding that others follow your path could mean that you are seeking to control them just as a substance has controlled you. 

Or maybe you have decided that everyone should love coffee because you love coffee. Stop. They don’t have to love what you (or I) love. We have to be careful that we don’t do to others what was previously making us miserable. That paintbrush that you wield is for your reality. You and I don’t get to design anyone else’s reality.

While, at first, I thought the subject of controlling from my dream might be about me as the victim, I began to hear other thoughts, and they weren’t any more pleasant. What if I’m being the controller? What if I am seeing an opportunity to exert control and shouldn’t?

We moved my mother to a new home recently, and one of my sons came over to see the progress. As I described what I thought we might do here or there, he stopped me and said, “You could do that, if that’s what Nana wants.” 

He was right. I was trying to paint my vision on her reality. Excuse me while I stop to consider where else I’ve been doing this. Actually, this might be a good time for you to do that, too.


Being Controlled

When that woman who was in a hurry pulled out in front of you in traffic, she wasn’t trying to ruin your day, but if you became angry because of her running late, you gave her a lot of control over your day. 

If your friend doesn’t call and you feel sad because you’ve decided this means they don’t like you, you’ve given them control they might not have been exerting. 

You see, people and situations can control us without even wanting to when we give that power to them. Stop reading things into other people’s actions without considering the reality you are allowing them to paint for you.

Of course, some people do seek to control us. They want to change us, they’re jealous, they don’t want to share us, they take no responsibility for their mistakes. They thrive on your inability to function on your own. Whether it is someone intentionally or unintentionally controlling you, you can learn some tools to take your paintbrush out of their hands.

  • Detach emotionally from the person

Not an easy thing to do, but if you can begin letting go of the hold they have on you, it will be worth it. Avoid the people who you find leave you feeling depressed or who take pleasure in criticizing you.

  • Remind yourself that this is your life, not theirs

This is your masterpiece, however messy it is. If someone is attempting to hold your brush, take it back. Helping and controlling are two different things, albeit sometimes a fine line.

  • Claim your own worth

This takes some practice and positive self-talk.


Controlling Others

It’s tempting, and without realizing it, we’ve announced our opinion in a way that tells someone else their thoughts or feelings are of little value.

  • Know what you can control
  • What is in my control? I am – my choices, my actions, my ignorance, my efforts to educate myself
  • offer support instead of control
  • Make an effort to recognize whether the other person would be better served by your support instead of your control

The next time I awaken in the middle of the night, I hope it’s because I’m feeling good about a change I’ve made. My vision for 2020 will be clouded if I spend too much time trying to paint another’s reality or give away the rights to my own. I’m wide awake with a vision of more self-control and less desire to control others. 

The watercolors are calling my name!

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. 

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