Bert meets the First Paradox

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. That’s Bert at the left, looking puzzled.

Bert speaking:)

Once upon a time Steve had a client who made him very very nervous.

Actually, no.  Steve’s a trained professional.  He never gets very very nervous.

(Believe that, and I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to bid on.)

No, this client made me very very nervous.

She did it by being very very nervous herself.

Her name (let’s say) was Adele. And Adele was nervous about, well, everything. She was nervous about money, and her job, and her health, and her kids, and her marriage. And her hair.  You name it.

And by the end of an hour with Adele I was usually a nervous wreck myself.

Why? Two reasons. Steve, explain the first one.

Anxiety can be contagious. Spend much time with highly nervous people and it’s hard not to start feeling nervous yourself. Like a bad cold, their sense of unsafety infects you. Like an overdose of cheap perfume, their uneasiness comes to saturate your senses.

True. But the other reason Adele made me anxious had more to do with me than with her.

I really wanted to fix her anxiety.

Not for her sake.  (Steve’s the therapist, not me.)  It made me uncomfortable, so I wanted to make it go away. So I pushed Steve to say helpful things and give good advice and communicate acceptance (soothing voice, solid eye contact, all that), all in hopes of calming her down.

So I could calm down.

It didn’t work. Adele stayed anxious.

And I began to feel helpless. 

And I began to hate Adele a little.

But Adele was actually doing me a favor.  Because she was teaching me about the First Paradox of Control.

For the record: Wikipedia defines paradox as “a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition.”

Right.  And the First Paradox of Control goes like this:

The more control you need,

the less control you have.

Or in this case, the more I needed to control Adele’s anxiety, the more out-of-control I felt.

Which I didn’t get, really, until one day when I finally got sick and tired of feeling helpless and hating her, and simply gave up trying to fix her anxiety.

Guess what happened.

I felt better immediately.  I found I could watch Adele’s nervousness without taking it personally, without experiencing it as a threat or a challenge. I found I could relax, and just let her be her anxious self. 

And — surprise — not trying to control her it left me feeling, well, in control.

Confusing, no?

Yes, confusing.

But in part this comes from a confusion of language.

We use the same word to describe two very different things. “Control Adele’s anxiety” means the ability to change another person’s feelings, while “feeling in control” describes an emotional state of  security or self-possession. Apples and oranges.

But — and here’s the interesting part — the confusion leads us naturally into assuming that we need to control something Out There before we can feel calmer In Here.

It’s not true.  In fact, the opposite is more often true: we need to give up controlling Out There in order to feel calmer In Here.


And yet, when I think about it, not so weird.

Because I notice that those situations and people that make me most anxious are the very ones over which I’d like more control.

They’re also the ones over which I try to get more control — if not overtly, then covertly. If not in my behavior, then in my head.  The ones I fantasize (even obsess) about changing.

Finally, they’re the situations and people I suddenly feel better about when I shift from trying to control them to just letting them beFrom fighting to surrendering, you might say.  Like I surrendered to Adele’s anxiety.

At the very least, surrendering’s a whole lot less work.

You said it.

Hey, reader:

Any experiences with the First Paradox?  Where you stopped controlling and ended up feeling more in control? 

If so, care to share?  We’d love to hear about it.

Want more?

Read the post my new friend Lori Landau just published, titled Can You Really Help Someone You Love Develop Healthy Habits?, on her blog Calm and Sense for Healthy Digestion.  PS: It’s not about digestion.  It’s about calming yourself in the face of another person’s pain.

13 responses to “Bert meets the First Paradox

  • Linda R.


    Great post, as always!

    From my experienec, this paradox is completely true…

    As a parent, I have struggled for years trying to “guide” my children through their development. This was a fairly easy task when they were young. Not so easy as teenagers, adolescents & young adults!

    While I do believe (hope) that my intentions have always been pure (I want my children to be happy, well adjusted (lol) & successful (whatever they deem that to be), I have recently come to realize that what started out as ‘direction’, rapidly became ‘control’ masquerading in sheep’s clothing.

    The tremendous energy that I have expended trying to ‘help’ them solve their problems and ‘smooth their paths in life’, has been exhauting & at times all consuming (and by no coincidence I’m sure, a great distraction from facing my own myriad of issues).

    After 25 long hard years, I have finally accepted that I have done all that I can (& definitely more than I should have)to provide them with the tools that they need to take charge of their own lives.

    WOW! What an exhilirating feeling!

    I feel like I can breathe again for the first time in a very long while!

    Perhaps now I will finally take the time to regain control of my own life (the only one by the way, that I really can have any control over).
    I only hope that I can find the strength to ‘stay the course’!

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Linda. I hear you about parenting. For me that’s where the boundaries really get blurry, and it becomes almost impossible to distinguish my own needs and wants from my kids’. I think that’s inevitable, given the biological tie between us, but I think all parents have to learn to be wary of it. The most troubled people I work with had parents who weren’t wary enough, crossed the boundary regularly, used control as their main way of relating to their kids, and produced children who still feel like children well into adulthood.

    • Marie


  • Linda

    I believe I have experienced many situations like that in all aspects of my life. I am learning that when I let go and let God take over, or just sit back in silence and observe, listen, let it be as you say, I can see and feel differently about the person or situation I am experiencing. Then there is no need to control; because then I am seeing more clearly.
    Thank you again Steve for sharing with us!

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Linda. Yes, I’m always surprised at how different things look to me when (if) I’m able to stop grabbing and just breathe for a moment.

  • Eunice Fields

    Another great post! My life’s experiences of having 5 children was not easy in relinquishing control. I was raised to: have everything under control, control my kids, control the way others reacted (if they didn’t have a good time at my party, it was my fault, etc). My mom still has an ongoing problem with control, and I used to get caught up in it. It seems to me that right now, I can know that I am doing best for myself, staying away from my mom and loving her from a distance. This is very hard for me, because the GUILT trip she lays on is thick. However, I now tend to ignore this and keep on doing what is best for me.

    • fritzfreud

      Good for you. Giving up controlling other people — e.g., trying to keep them happy or liking us — is hard enough by itself. When they actively oppose our efforts to detach, it becomes really difficult. And when they’re our parent…
      Well. It takes real courage to stand up to that. Real courage, and lots of people reminding us that we have the right to do it. You have the right to do it.

  • Elvita Kondili

    Great post! I have experienced this exact thing with my clients especially when I first started out in counseling. I struggled with accepting my limitations as human and as a professional. I struggled (and still do) with accepting my own powerlessness.
    My only question is, would feeling less need for control sometimes be a sign of learned helplessness instead of a state of acceptance and calm?

    • fritzfreud

      Thanks, Elvita. Good question. I use the word “powerless” differently than 12 Step programs. To me, “power” means being able to get my needs met — to take care of myself — which is very different from (sometimes the opposite of) controlling people, places and things around me. (When the First Step says “Admitted we were powerless over x,” I translate that as “Admitted we could not control the stuff we wanted to.”) My article “Seven Kinds of Power” explores the differences more fully ( As for learned helplessness: No, I think feeling less of a need for control — being able to take the First Step and really detach, or accept, or surrender — leaves one feeling, not helpless, but powerful: more able to get one’s needs met and take care of oneself. In those terms, attending a self-help meeting is an expression of personal power, not helplessness. Which explains why people usually walk out feeling better than when they walked in.

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