Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW

This Isn't What I Expected

The Paradox of Control: Learning to Let Go

When perfectionism gets in the way.

Posted Sep 19, 2011

One of my greatest responsibilities, in my role as therapist to postpartum women who try desperately to keep pace with their own unrealistic expectations, is to simply tell them they don't have to do that anymore. They can stop working so hard. They can learn from their mistakes. They can stop looking so good. They can make a mess. They can learn to live with imperfection.

I described this to a client of mine who had been very sick with severe depression. As she began to recover, she soon found herself overwhelmed and working way too hard to feel better. That is to say, she was actually impeding her recovery by running too much and avoiding taking care of herself. Keeping busy was the only way she knew how to remain in control of her life. Almost immediately, she found she was doing too much, worrying too much, cleaning too much, trying to fix too much, and ultimately, exhausting herself. I told her it was okay for her to feel what she needed to feel and that I could help her feel more in control of her life again.

But the paradox is, she would have to give up some control, in order to regain it.

Her look of puzzlement led me to describe it this way: Suppose you have a water balloon in your hand that you wanted to hold still. It wiggles and rolls in your palm while you try to maintain a grasp of it. Quickly, it falls off balance and your instinct is to clutch it tightly to hold on to it. But in grabbing it, one of two things will occur; it will either burst or pop right out of your hand. Either way, you have essentially lost control. There is only one way to maintain control of the wobbly balloon.

It is, quite simply, to let go.

By slowly releasing your grip, the filled balloon will settle into the center of your palm and be in balance. The more you squeeze, the less this is likely.

My client understood the squeezing. She knew that this is exactly why she was so tired all the time, so exhausted from working so hard, from thinking so hard, from trying so hard to pretend that everything was okay. Giving her permission to give that up and let that go was the first breath of air she had felt for months. She took a deep long sigh, filling her lungs with new life.

I observed her carefully while she listened to the words that offered her freedom from herself, permission to release her tight hold. She looked down at her closed fists that only a short time ago clutched an excess of pills that would have surely ended her life. Slowly, she opened her fingers and let her hands relax with her palms empty and free. She looked down at her empty hands. After interlocking her fingers and holding tight, she touched her mouth in prayer position. Her eyes were closed. Her breathing was slow and deliberate.

Letting go never felt so good.

Adapted from Therapy and the Postpartum Woman Routlege, 2009


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