Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!

Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!

Ever feel that way? Sure we all have. I feel this way when I don’t have any good choices. The idea of no good choices was typified in the novel Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Heller tells the story of what absurd things can happen when you cannot escape a situation because of contradictory rules. The main character, a pilot during World War II, wants to stop flying bombing missions because he fears for his life. The unit psychiatrist explains that the only way to get out of flying missions is to be crazy, but if you ask to get out of flying missions you cannot be crazy.

So Catch-22 says only crazy pilots can be grounded, but if you ask to be grounded you can’t be crazy so you can’t be grounded. In the therapy world, this is also known as a paradox or a double bind.

In their book Change, Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) describe how a mother wants her 8-year-old son to do his homework. Rather than instructing the child to do his homework, she wants her son to want to do his homework. This instruction creates a dilemma for the son because he not only has to do the homework he has to want to do it. This requires him to not only engage in the appropriate behavior but to desire to do it as well. You also see what is called the spontaneity paradox in interactions with some couples who want their spouse to do something they like, but if the other must ask for it then it “does not count.” 

Gregory Bateson (1972) suggested that the first of the 12 Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous (i.e., We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives have become unmanageable) is a therapeutic paradox. That is because you must admit to being powerless over alcohol in order to overcome the impact it has on your life.  

The strange thing about paradox is that you can’t follow the same rules that created them to get out of them. You have to get “meta” and talk about the behavior that is desired not necessarily the motivation for the behavior.

That’s where the trouble resides.

Does it matter “why” a child cleans up after herself as long as she cleans up? Similarly, does it matter if a wife apologizes for being insensitive if she only does it to “keep the peace?” As a species, we are horrible at mind-reading. We probably should just trust behavior that we can see–seeing is believing. 

Dr. Bill