A guy goes to a doctor.
“Doc, I’m in awful pain. Please help me.”
“Okay,” says the doc, “here’s some medicine. Take the blue pill in the morning, take the red pill at night.”
“I’ll take the blue one,” the guy says, “but not the red one.”
“I’ve always hated red.”
This joke kept floating into my mind last week because of conversations I was having.
They were conversations with
~ an alcoholic who drinks due to loneliness, but won’t leave his isolation to attend AA;
~ a mom who craves a close relationship with her daughter, but won’t stop telling her what to do;
~ a husband who wants his wife to forgive his affair, but walks away when she tries to talk about her feelings of hurt and anger; and
~ a wife and mother exhausted from meeting everyone else’s needs, but who won’t say No to any demand made of her.
Each in considerable pain. Each avoiding some obvious step to relieve it.
Each saying I hate red.
Therapists call this behavior help-seeking/help-rejecting, and it results from a cost/benefit analysis that’s largely unconscious. On some level each of these people has decided that solving their problem would be more uncomfortable than the problem itself. They hate their pain, but they hate red more.
Pretty common, this. We all have red pills. They’re what we make New Year’s resolutions about. Things we should do but just can’t stop avoiding.
Exercise more. Watch less tv. Eat less sugar. Ask for that raise. Write that damned book.
Red-pill behavior illustrates what I call the Third Paradox*:
To get control in one place,
you have to give it up in another.
Want control of your weight? Tolerate your food cravings. Want control of your loneliness? Stop avoiding people. Want your daughter’s company? Stop bossing her. And so on.
Here’s the key:
In practice, what “give it up in another”usually means is stop avoiding some uncomfortable feeling.
Behind all controlling is the wish to control or manage feelings. Notice those examples above. The alcoholic is managing social anxiety. The mom is managing frustration with her daughter’s life choices. The husband is managing guilt over his affair.
But in backing away from those feelings they’ve backed into new problems. So solving those problems will mean learning to tolerate the feelings they avoid.
Again, we all do this. We always will. We’re all control addicts. It’s how we’re wired. No point in beating yourself up over it.
If you have a problem of which you’re really really really sick and tired, you might redefine it by noticing that’s it’s really a solution as well — your way of protecting yourself from some particular emotional experience.
This sort of redefinition is the essential first step towards any solution.
What red pill are you avoiding?