BOOK EXCERPT: The more you need (The First Paradox)



From Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop by Steve Hauptman (Lioncrest, 2015).

~~~LOGO on white



Chapter 51: The more you need


The more control you need, the less in control you feel.

                                   ~ The First Paradox


People who say they want to feel in control usually mean they want to feel calm, safe, settled, secure.

But using control to achieve security is self-defeating.  It’s the emotional equivalent of trying to put out a fire with gasoline, or treating toothache by chewing chocolate.

This paradox takes many forms, but two common examples should suffice.

One is anxiety management.

As noted earlier, we tend to be afraid of feelings.  We often express this fear by holding them inside.  But instead of making us feel safe, suppressing feelings actually raises our anxiety.  Paul Foxman:

When feelings are denied or kept inside there is typically a buildup or physical tension.  When that tension is not released, an internal pressure builds up.  An accumulation of such pressure leads to anxiety, due to fears of losing control emotionally.  That condition also triggers anxiety because of its physiological similarity to the fight/flight response, which is normally associated with danger.  Thus our personality creates a paradox in which we deny feelings to prevent anxiety but experience anxiety when we deny our feelings.[1]

Alexander Lowen agrees:

It is not generally recognized that suppression of a feeling makes one afraid of that feeling.  It becomes a skeleton in the closest one dares not look at.  The longer it is hidden, the more frightening it becomes. [2]

This is the problem of emotional constipation I discussed earlier (see chapter 24).  Feelings are meant to be expelled, not buried.  Buried feelings don’t dissipate, they collect.

Thus clients who fear their own anger need to be encouraged to express it in session, and those afraid of grief need to be encouraged to cry, and the chronically frightened need to be helped to identify and express their anxieties whenever they come up.  Only when this happens can one begin to feel calm inside.

A second area in which the first paradox operates is that of self-improvement.

Some clients enter therapy declaring their wish to be “better people.”  What they mean varies.  Some want to be better spouses or parents, or better at their jobs.  Some want to be more disciplined, more honest or more brave.  All valid goals.  But every self-improvement project that springs from self-judgment and self-rejection is doomed to fail.  Fritz Perls writes,

We are all concerned with the idea of change, and most people go about it by making programs.  They want to change.  “I should be like this” and so on and so on.  What happens is that the idea of deliberate change never, never, never functions.  As soon as you say, “I want to change” — make a program — a counter-force is created that prevents you from change.  Changes are taking place by themselves.  If you go deeper into what you are, if you accept what is there, then a change automatically occurs by itself.[3]

Perls is describing what Gestaltists call the Paradoxical Theory of Change:

The more you try to change yourself, the more you stay stuck.  But the moment you accept yourself as you are, change happens by itself.

In therapy, then, my job is to help people be who they are now — their feelings and needs especially — instead of self-controlling their way into some new improved version.  Until they can do this they remain internally split, into judge and defendant, controller and controlled, and all their energy gets wasted in an exhausting and futile fight against themselves.



NEXT: The Second Paradox


1. Paul Foxman, Dancing with fear: overcoming anxiety in a world of stress and uncertainty (Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), 48.

2. Alexander Lowen, The spirituality of the body (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 45.

3. Frederick S. Perls, Gestalt therapy verbatim (Lafayette, CA: Real People Press, 1969), 178.


















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