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The Panopticon Effect

Fear of forgetting, fear of change, and the pressure to keep myself in check: these thoughts shroud my every waking moment.

“You are so self-disciplined” people say. They make it sound like a good thing, but little do they know that my body and mind seem to me like a prison: “You need to control everything you do, if you stop you will lose control and all will unravel”. It has reached the point where thoughts like these negatively impact every part of my life and wellbeing. My compulsions dictate everything I do and every decision I make. ‘Spontaneous’ is not a part of my vernacular.

Control is addictive. If I don’t keep everything I do the same, even down to the tiniest detail, I experience such overwhelming anxiety that I feel the need to correct it. The thing is, I’m unsure of exactly how I can correct it, so I slap myself repeatedly, saying ‘not again’. I know that it sounds absurd. I’m self-policing and not sure how to stop.

As I said earlier, it is like being in a prison. A very particular kind of prison designed by Jeremy Bentham. It is called the Panopticon; a circular building with a guard tower in the middle. Cells are built around the central tower from which the guard can look, but the occupants of the cells cannot see into the tower and therefore do not know if the guard is present, or if they are being watched. As a result, the prisoner begins to police his own behaviour so consistently that it becomes normalised.

I have this internalised gaze and it traps me in a perpetual cycle of control from which I am unable to escape. But that is how things go awry: I know the more that I continue with the self-policing behaviour, the more it becomes ingrained and instinctive.

What happens when I try to resist controlling myself?

I think that if I am in control of my behaviours, then I will be in control of my emotions: that in some way, it will calm me down. Increasingly, though, I am becoming aware that the more I try to suppress these behaviours, the more I experience a constant flittering state of anxiety. I am under the illusion that if I change any aspect of the rituals comprising my life that something bad will happen. It sounds irrational because these thoughts are unfounded and of course I do not know what will happen, but the mere thought of it creates a fear in me unlike anything I have ever felt. It’s as though electricity is pulsing from my core to my extremities; my arms tense and tingle; my eyes glaze over; rapid chatter erupts, reaping havoc in my mind and causing it to short circuit. Then I cannot think beyond that precise moment in time. I have to concentrate on how to keep my limbs together, as if they were about to fall off (rather like those wooden toys whose body parts go ‘flop’ when you push a button at the bottom of them).

I often find it difficult to decipher what is real and what is not. Is what my head is telling me actually true? The mind is so powerful and complex, and it works in many ways that we cannot control. I have come to understand that anxiety is a response to fear, and that it is supposed to generate a physiological discomfort so that we feel a real need to avoid whatever created the fear in the first place. But I can’t avoid myself!

What I can do, however, is slowly develop strategies and reminders that doing something differently (such as eating on an odd number of the clock or taking a different route on a walk) does not mean that bad things are going to happen, that I am a bad person, that people will dislike me, or that I will lose control.

Ironically, I used to think that tightening the control would create a sense of calm when in fact it had the opposite effect. So I am coming to realise that ‘losing control’ doesn’t make me any less of a person. Most people display a form of self-policing behaviour at some point: even Santa Claus makes a list and checks it twice. There is a line, however, between what is healthy and what is not.

I often wonder how I would behave if the guard was not there, and this is what I’m currently trying to discover in my journey to regain my life: a life free from the constant internalised gaze of the prison guard and the perpetual need to control.

In the meantime I will not let it overwhelm me. Now I seek another kind of calm, one that involves a campaign against living miserably.

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