The First Paradox

(Bert speaking:)

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

Very very nervous.

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

(Believe that, and I have a bridge to sell you.)

No, this client made me very very nervous.

She did it by being very very nervous herself.

Her name (let’s say) was Angie.  And Angie 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.  And her lawn.  You name it.

An hour with Angie would leave me a nervous wreck.

Why?  Two reasons.

Steve, explain the first.

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


The second reason, though, had more to do with me than with Angie:

I felt an overwhelming need to fix her anxiety.

Not for her sake.  (Steve’s the therapist, not me.)  Because it made me uncomfortable.  I just 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 maybe I could calm down.

It didn’t work.  Angie stayed anxious.

And I began to feel helpless.  And I began to hate Angie a little.

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

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 I needed to control Angie’s anxiety, the more out-of-control I felt.

I didn’t get this until the day I finally got sick and tired of feeling helpless and hating her.  “Screw it,” I thought, and simply gave up.  Sat back.  Just watched.

Guess what happened.

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

Oddly enough, not trying to control her it left me feeling in control.

Confusing, no?

Yes, confusing.

But in part this comes from a confusion of language.

We use the word control to describe two very different things. “Control Angie’s anxiety” refers to something external, to somebody else’s emotional state.  “Feel in control” refers to something internal, your own emotional state.  Apples and oranges.  

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

And it’s not true. 

In fact, more often than not, the opposite is true:

Only when we give up controlling Out There do we begin to feel calmer In Here.

So what the First Paradox means is that the more you try to control external stuff the less at ease you feel internally.

Weird?  I thought so at first.

Then I began paying more attention to my own reactions.

And I noticed 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 (obsess, even) 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.  Like I surrendered to Angie’s anxiety.

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

Hey you, reading this:

Any experiences with the First Paradox?  Ever stop controlling and end up feeling more in control?

If so, care to share?   I’d really like to hear about it.

* * *



* * *

Where the hell is Matt?

Matt Harding (aka Dancing Matt) travels around the world and gets people — all sorts of people — to dance with him. 

He’s made five videos of the results, the most recent being “Where the hell is Matt? 2012”

Wikipedia notes,

On July 22, 2008, and again on July 25, 2010, and July 10, 2012, NASA featured Harding’s videos on the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) Web site. 

Text accompanying these videos, under the heading “Happy People Dancing on Planet Earth,” claims that humans worldwide share a common love of dance, stating that “few people are able to watch the above video without smiling.”[20]

Watch “Where the hell is Matt? 2012.  You’re welcome.

7 responses to “The First Paradox

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