(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.
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.
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 be. From 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.
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.
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.