Red pill


red pill 2 (12-18-12)

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.”

“Why not?”

“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?



*Click here for descriptions of the First and Second paradoxes.

9 responses to “Red pill

  • Eunice

    Steve, great article! I have a huge lump in my throat, isolating myself as well as bossing adult children in the past. Thank you!

  • Janet Slote

    Its tough to get down those red pills.

  • Jenora Avery

    I’ve begun to see a new therapist, mainly to overcome childhood trauma. The new therapist asks me to draw up a timeline and while I’m sitting in her office I’m so excited to get started. Now it’s been a week later and I haven’t gotten the paper and pencil out even once. My red pill is choking me to death! So glad to have read this post. 😜

    • Steve Hauptman

      Thanks, Jenora.

      Forgive the unsolicited advice, but: Have you thought of starting the timeline while you’re sitting in her office?

      Trauma’s hard to face on your own. Maybe you just need some support, or accountability, or something.

      Good luck. 🙂

  • Kathleen

    Some Red Pills are easier to swallow than others. Tolerating uncomfortable feelings gives me the opportunity to examine them. Sometimes the feelings give me important information that I can choose to act on…such as an unmet need that I can fill. These are the kind of red pills that are easy to swallow.

    The red pills/ uncomfortable feelings that are the hardest to swallow are those that I can’t act on, or reframe and rethink. It’s hard to tolerate those feelings. I don’t know what to do with them!

  • Ali

    I used to think that once I identified my red pill I could then control it!
    And now the only way to get through us to lean in to them without worrying about making it go away…it’s giving up and it’s easier in one way…I surrender to an experience yet I then lean/feel the uncomfortable feeling until it’s time is over.
    Learning that I don’t have to do anything felt weird at first then easier with practice 😉

    • Kathleen

      Thanks for sharing, Ali. 🙏 I tend to think through and process my emotions, so it will be weird to just feel an emotion and not do anything with it. But sometimes there is nothing you can do but feel. I will try to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. 😊

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