Chopsticks and Control

Close-up on black chopsticks picking up a sushi role.
Holding chopsticks in different ways can make us have different levels of control over them. That same concept can apply to other things in our lives.

How to hold chopsticks

I’m really good at eating with chopsticks. I’m comfortable and precise. My mom, on the other hand, struggles. She’s been expanding her culinary palate recently, and tried her hand at making sushi the other night. As we ate (it was quite yummy), I watched her struggle to pick up each piece and keep hold of it as she took a bite, and to deal with the pieces that fell apart afterwards, and I noticed some interesting differences in how we were holding our chopsticks. 

I hold mine at the end, and have a lot of easy control over picking up the pieces and maneuvering them, even getting single, stray grains of rice. On the other hand, my mom starts with holding her chopsticks around their middle, but struggles to get control so she slides her hand closer and closer to the tips of the chopsticks, trying to get more and more control by getting closer and closer to the piece of sushi. This seems like a completely reasonable thing.

If you want more control, it makes sense to get a tighter hold, closer to the object that you’re trying to control. Every time I suggest that she holds the end of the chopsticks, she moves her hand back just a little bit but it keeps creeping forward. She has a hard time trusting that moving farther away from the thing she’s trying to grasp will work out better.

How we hold things closer

It occurred to me that this is what a lot of us do in our lives. And yes, those of us who are Autistic tend to be more prone to it. Although rigidity and control are stereotypes of autistic behaviors, anyone who is stressed, overwhelmed or traumatized may have this reaction (the other common reaction is the exact opposite, where everything goes to chaos).

When something’s not working out the way we want it to, and we don’t know what to do about it, and we feel like everything is about to get away from us, those of us who seek control tend to clamp down tighter.

We make more lists, make more rules, more routines, make grand sweeping pronouncements that “from now on I will always,” “I will never,” or “no one is allowed to.” It’s like we’re moving our hand farther down the chopstick to get closer to the sushi by hemming it in. But all the while it’s getting more and more unwieldy, so we clamp down even tighter. 

In those moments, moving your hand farther back on the chopstick feels like you’re giving in to chaos.

Yet no matter the good intentions of people who tell us loosen up, it genuinely seems like terrible advice. In those moments, moving your hand farther back on the chopstick feels like giving in to chaos. It feels like everything’s going to spin out of control, the sushi will fall, the rice will scatter, and your life will fall apart, and nothing will ever be okay again.

So what do we do? In the case of sushi, holding the end of the chopsticks works because it allows the entire stick to move together. When you hold the center of the chopsticks, you have part of the stick below your hand and part of the stick above your hand, and they’re moving in different directions at the same time. It’s harder to control two sticks moving in four directions at once. 

That’s all well and good for sushi, but does that apply to friends, or group dynamics at school, or getting along with coworkers or a boss at work, or trying to organize a household, or your kids needing all sorts of different things at once, or your finances, or whatever the situation is that’s unwieldy and terrifying?

Changing your grip helps

Actually, I think it sort of does. Bear with me for a moment.

When we try to control the nitty gritty by making rules, it doesn’t take into account the many dimensions of a real human experience of the world.

In real life, that is, a life beyond the sushi plate, when we try to control the nitty gritty by making rules, or setting up routines, or by seeing everything as all or nothing, black and white, right or wrong, good or bad, this or that, always or never, it doesn’t take into account the wide variety and many dimensions of a real human experience of the world. It’s very rare that we will actually encounter situations that we can make a rule for that will always work, in all circumstances. That’s why exceptions exist. 

But stressed out people, anyone from autistic kids to large bureaucracies, shudder at the thought of exceptions. 

They like to say that everyone will always do this, in this way, at this time, and that’s just how it has to be. But sometimes you’re too tired, you make mistakes or someone else does, or an unexpected variable arises. The tighter you try to control things, the more complicated the rule has to be to fit all the different contingencies. Or the more frustrated you’re going to be trying to fit all the different contingencies into a blanket rule. Its like the four ends of the chopsticks all going in different directions.

The tighter you try to control things, the more complicated the rule has to be to fit all the different contingencies. 

On the other hand, if you move your hand away, control less of the situation and control it from more of a distance, it allows a little more flexibility without completely losing your grasp on the situation. When you’re stressed, that approach feels deeply counterintuitive (oh, how well I know that!), and yet trying it can ultimately lower stress levels because, as things are happening, you’re more able to adapt to the changing situation, or, as the case may be, pick up bits of rice that fall.

How to do that, though, is the hardest part. How to let yourself move a bit away from the situation, to control it a bit less, when all you want to do is to control it more. This is where thought work and coaching can be extremely valuable, especially in the beginning when you’re just starting to try it out and still tentatively establishing the foundation that will make this easier.

I recognize that this isn’t addressing how to do this. My purpose for right now is to introduce the idea, and I’ll be writing more about this, including specific examples, in the future.

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Picture of Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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