Effort is a paradox

Try to remember that your present is a gift. Don’t try too hard. Let’s talk more about paradoxical effort. 

As we’ve discussed, if you try to use mindfulness to suppress or control your thoughts and feelings, they will increase and grow stronger. Mindfulness in any given moment is not meant to alleviate psychological suffering. A habit of mindfulness practice over time will likely reduce your overall sensitization and make it easier to notice that your thoughts are just thoughts in any given moment. In the moment of suffering, though, mindfulness is a therapeutic attitude that helps you stay committed to what you were already planning to do without making your internal experience worse. 

If this doesn’t seem to be working for you, you’re likely struggling with paradoxical effort. It’s not that you aren’t trying hard enough or being lazy about your mental health or your treatment. You’re probably trying too hard to use the right strategies and coping skills. Because you are also hoping that the strategies will make your thoughts and feelings go away, it’s getting worse. Oops. It was paradoxical effort. 

Paradoxical effort can be the issue with your struggle with yourself. It may also be the issue for areas of your life that involve other people or values-based activities. 

Here are some examples of how paradoxical effort might backfire in your life: 

  • When trying to be perfect in relationships makes you socially isolated and lonely. 
  • When fear of saying the wrong thing becomes suppressing your opinions and personality. 
  • When trying to do your job perfectly becomes burnout. 
  • When fear of harming the children you love becomes avoidance of those children.
  • When checking on your sensations creates more of them. 
  • When trying to fall asleep becomes sleeplessness. 

These are all opportunities to surrender.
In order to get out of the trap that is paradoxical effort: 

  • Surrender to being imperfect. 
  • Surrender to the possibility that you’ll say the wrong thing. 
  • Surrender to the possibility that you’re a bad person and that you have the wrong motivation or intention.
  • Surrender to the possibility that your sensations are indicating a catastrophic problem and you are being irresponsible. 
  • Surrender to the possibility that you won’t sleep all night and you will be exhausted tomorrow. 

Surrendering to these possibilities doesn’t make them true. It reduces the extra psychological suffering due to fear and bracing. 

Trying too hard to cope correctly doesn’t just make your anxiety and OCD worse in the moment. It also creates the opposite outcome in your life. 
If you are fueled by anxiety about your performance, checking will lead to burnout and you will be more likely to make mistakes. The reason it’s worth it to refrain from checking in any given moment is so that so that you make fewer mistakes long term. Sacrifice the present performance for the chance to have higher performance long term. 

Similarly, a spiritually scrupulous person needs to stop praying in an anxiety driven way in order to live out spiritual values. A conscientious person needs to stop checking on being conscientious in order to be conscientious long term. A health-conscious person with checking behaviors needs to stop checking in order to enjoy the gift of good health. 

Can you see the pattern? How does this apply to you? 
Where do you notice paradoxical effort being a problem in your life? 
To what do you need to surrender? 
What makes surrender more or less likely for you in any given anxious moment?