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The Control Paradox

Controlling – however straightforward the idea might seem – always contains a hidden self-contradiction. This paradox, this inherent self-contradiction remains hidden only because we are usually unsuccessful in our controlling, or at best only partially successful. ‘Total control’ is something that we usually never quite manage and so we never see the paradox, and because we never see the paradox we carry on trying.  There is a similar glitch in perfectionism – perfectionism (as everyone knows) is glitched precisely because no matter how well you do, you know you could always do better. We can never have 100% accuracy (i.e. total control) and so we have to keep on trying, but because we’re so very  caught up in trying to achieve this goal, we never see that what we’re attempting to do is actually impossible!




If I were able to control 100% effectively however this is when I would run into the self-contradiction. If I were able to control 100% effectively then I would discover that the situation which I have brought about as a result of my controlling is the very last situation that I would want! If I could only see this then I would lose my appetite for controlling forever. I would lose the taste for it. The only thing is however – I never do to see it. I never see that what I’m chasing after isn’t worth the effort because I’m always far too busy chasing after it!




We have such a terrible, insatiable appetite for control. We hunger for it so much. This is no healthy hunger either because the more we feed it the more viciously insatiable it becomes as a result. The need to control is in reality a terrible type of sickness, for all that we value it so much. There is no genuine satisfaction in the successful exercise of control, only a temporary, tantalizing ‘hit’ of euphoria that all too quickly departs, leaving us even more hungry than before. In this control is like every addiction there ever was – the rewards are great at first, but this is only to draw us in. That’s the cheese in the mousetrap. Once we have been hooked, like a fish on a line, then the rewards fall away exponentially and we slowly but surely learn what it means to have our freedom, our autonomy taken away…




Addictions always follow the same pattern: they always exemplify the law of diminishing returns. At first the rewards – as we have said – are great (and the ‘downside’ is hardly noticeable), but as time goes on the investment we need to make to obtain the good feeling goes up and up, as does the negative impact on our life. We have to invest more and more to get less and less. Eventually – as every addict knows only too well – the investment needed becomes all-consuming and the yield not really worth bothering about. We end up working very hard just to feel half-way normal. The ‘reward’ has at this stage become entirely hollow, entirely farcical, as have we. The prize turns to dust every time we get our hands on it – it is a dummy prize, a prize for dummies…




The problem is – as we have already intimated – that we are chasing after something that really isn’t worth having. We’re chasing after something that we don’t really want – we only think that we want it! We think that we want it because we don’t know what it really is; we’re not chasing the thing itself, only our illusory idea of it. We think all our problems will be resolved when we finally get our hands on the prize but when we finally do then we discover that we have obtained for ourselves – at a very high price – a thing of horror. It’s not what we thought it would be at all…




A good way of illustrating this idea is to think about an abusive relationship. Suppose I have an abusive relationship with you and I am the abuser. I control you because in doing so I feed my appetite for control. But the more I control the more I need to control – it’s a bottomless pit, as we have already said. Suppose that I am successful in my controlling, and that I manage to reduce you to a state of perfect passivity, a state of total subjugation, a state of complete compliance. Everything about you now becomes a reflection of my will – you have no spark of autonomy left in you. You are now my passive puppet.




So from the point of view of what I set out to achieve, I have what I wanted. I should therefore be happy. I should be feeling pretty good. I should be over the moon. The point we’re making here however is that I’m notthere is actually nothing more unsatisfying than having your own wishes, your own desires or intentions reflected right back at you. I’m in a hollow echo chamber and there’s no one here but me…




There is a mocking quality to this situation. When I control you completely therefore – so that your own will, your own volition is no longer part of the equation – then this proves to be a hollow victory. Just when I expect my fingers to close triumphantly on the prize I discover that there’s nothing there – the prize has eluded me at the last moment and I am left with the feeling that I am being made fun of, that I am the butt of some joke. My pain and disappointment at having been cheated in this way turns therefore into rage at this point and – as is always the way – instead of being pleased at your compliance I am infuriated by it. I get what I want and then discover that I don’t want it after all…




The ‘abusive relationship’ scenario is a metaphor for everything really. It can be generalized indefinitely. The ‘quintessential relationship’ is – we might say – the relationship between me and life. What do I want from life? I want it to reflect my wishes. I want it to conform to my expectations. I want it to reflect my intentions. I want for it to be obedient to my will. I want it to be the way I think it should be! Not to put too fine a point on it, I want to control it. My desire to control is insatiable, bottomless, limitless. It is a black hole within me. I want to get my own way. I want to be proved right. I want to win in every game going. I want this thing I call ‘success’…




At first, any successes that I get will taste sweet indeed and as a result of this my appetite for further successes will be whetted. I will want to extend my empire, I will want to consolidate my power-base. As time goes by however I will discover that ‘getting my own way’ provides me with less and less satisfaction, until it gets to the point where there is practically no satisfaction left in it. My triumphs become hollow, they become all-but-meaningless. I squeeze life as hard as I can but no good comes out of it!




The more power I have the more I want, but it still doesn’t make me happy. I discover – eventually – that I have ‘sold my birthright for a mess of pottage’. When I finally manage to get what I want (when I finally manage to control with 100% success) I discover that I have spent all my money not just on something worthless, but on something which is actually the last thing I would ever want. But I only know that after I have bought it…




Herein lies the self-contradiction, therefore. When I finally get what I want I discover that I don’t want it at all. The fact that control always contains a hidden self-contradiction has a very discomforting consequence – it means that everything we do on purpose (for the sake of attaining some goal) is fundamentally insincere. All intentional, purposeful activity is a lie!




We say we want to attain the goal, but actually we don’t because the goal is nothing. The goal’s just a gimmick. We tell ourselves we want to control, we constantly try to be in control (and get very disappointed or demoralized if we can’t) but actually this is not true at all. We base our whole outlook, our whole approach, our whole philosophy on the premise of the self-evident desirability of control, and yet really this is all one huge big lie!




We don’t really want what we say we want at all. We don’t really want to obtain the prize. We don’t really want to obtain total control – we just want to perpetuate the illusion! We just want to keep the game going! What we really want is to carry on doing what we’ve always been doing without having to question it.




We want to carry on believing that the goal of total control is worthwhile; that it makes good sense and that one day it is actually going to work out for us. Our motivation is therefore totally superficial – we want to hang to the cherished illusion that chasing our sterile mind-created goals is actually going to actually get us somewhere, no matter how much misery and frustration this illusion puts us through…









  • Derek Bell

    So true! What do you think is the core source of this need for control? Ernest Becker would have probably said this need for control is directly linked to the natural fear of death that lies within each of us. This begs the question – are orderly people subconsciously more fearful of death? I think there is some truth to this. Thanks for the good read!

    February 8, 2019 at 6:14 pm Reply
  • Nick Williams

    Thanks Derek. Orderly people are probably more fearful of death, I’d say! The more invested we are in control the more afraid we are of what will happen if we DON’T control so we’re caught in a nasty type of trap here. It’s true that fear of death is pretty fundamental but we could also approach this by saying that what we’re ultimately afraid of is THE UNKNOWN. When I am projecting my own form of order on the world then there is never any unknown – I have gotten rid of it, in other words! The form of order that I am investing in is my denial of the unknown, therefore. But the more we invest in the structure the more terrifying the prospect of the ending of this structure becomes, so this is another way of talking about death! Death is the ending of the known, we could say, and we don’t want that to happen…

    February 9, 2019 at 12:47 pm Reply
  • bob Macintosh

    The left hand of control is tolerance. A thermostat controls the temperature within limits, and without some tolerance between the limits, the thermostat will be trying to switch on and off at the same time., Likewise one can ride a bike in a roughly straight line, and get to where one wants, if one allows the little deviations that enable balance to be maintained. Control is not impossible, but absolute control is absolutely impossible. Nice piece though, nice blog. Have you come across Robert Rosen?

    February 9, 2019 at 3:46 pm Reply
  • Nick Williams

    Yes I totally agree – control’s OK as long as you don’t take it too far! The interesting thing here (for me) is the question of where the tolerance comes from! Logic itself doesn’t have the capacity to tolerate uncertainty – even though we might think that we could ‘programme tolerance into it’ (which is what fuzzy logic is all about). This doesn’t really work however – logic can simulate tolerance but only in a ‘rule-based way’ which means that we have to know in advance what parameters to be tolerant in. But the system can never be tolerant ‘of its own accord’, only if it has been told in advance what to be tolerant about, which is still a ‘rigid’ situation. In essence, we can’t have a rule that gives us freedom from the rule – no rule can ever give us permission not to obey it. Anyway, my point (that I am very slowly coming to) is that the thinking mind itself can’t be tolerant but CONSCIOUSNESS can. Consciousness is fluid, in other words, in that it comes with no preconceptions. ‘Be water, my friend’, famously says Brice Lee… So maybe the right hand is the rational mind and consciousness the left?

    February 9, 2019 at 6:54 pm Reply
  • Nick Williams

    Quote from Alan Watts – What we have to discover is that there is no safety, that seeking it is painful, and that when we imagine that we have found it, we don’t like it.

    Alan Watts
    The Wisdom of Insecurity

    February 16, 2019 at 10:11 pm Reply

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