Control Paradox

Human-beings are addicted to control. One reason for this is that we have such very large and sophisticated brains. Our "big brains" have allowed us to exert an amazing degree of control over our environment. For example, consider the downtown area of any major city. Virtually everything you see there is a testament to man's ability to control and shape his surroundings. It's not surprising, therefore, that one of our first instincts when confronted with an unwelcome experience is to somehow try to control that experience. This "control instinct" pops up automatically and without our even noticing it all the time. In most cases, it works very well. If you spill a glass of water, you exert control by wiping it up. If you find that you're too warm wearing that jacket, you take it off. Bothered by the glare from the sun? You raise a hand to shield your eyes, or put on your sunglasses. In countless ways, every day, all day long, we are exercising control. Our primary operating principle could be summed up as: "if you don't like it, get rid of it."

Control of Feelings

While control works for us in so many situations, when it comes to controlling our feelings, control seems to have the opposite of the desired effect. This is especially evident when you try to control or get rid of your anxiety. Imagine what would happen if you were interviewing for a job that you wanted very much. The interviewer tells you that a major qualification for this particular job is that you be able to remain calm and relaxed at all times. To test for this, during the interview, you will be hooked up to an "anxiety-meter" that will measure your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, perspiration, and breathing. All of this data will be fed into the machine, which will give a read-out of your anxiety level throughout the interview. What do you think would happen to your anxiety level as you were being hooked up to the machine? What would happen if the interviewer said "Oh my! Your anxiety is much too high. You'll have to do better than that!" Would your anxiety go up or down?

If you're like most people, your anxiety would probably increase the harder you tried to make it decrease. Instead of "if you don't like it, get rid of it", the principle that seems to apply here is "if you try to get rid of it, you're going to have more of it". Why is this? Remember that anxiety is the fight-or-flight response. This is the response that helps us to take control of a threatening situation. If the situation that we need to control is anxiety, however, then we are eliciting the very response that we want to get rid of. This is the control paradox.

Control of Thoughts

A similar paradox applies when we try to control our thoughts. Most people find that the more they want to avoid thinking about something, the more likely they are to think about that very something. In fact, it is only when we decide that "I must not think about X" that we begin to experience thoughts about X as intrusive and pervasive. The stronger the prohibitions against a thought, the more out of our control the thought seems to be. Most of us have experienced this in social situations when we have told ourselves: "Don't look at the pimple on his nose" or "Don't think about that bit of spinach between her teeth." Good luck with that! In some cases, when thoughts are especially disturbing and we believe that we absolutely, positively, must not think them, these thoughts can become obsessions.