10 Paradoxes That Could Be Holding You Back

2 April 2024
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In life, we often come across behavior or beliefs that initially seem beneficial or logical, but upon closer examination, prove to be counterproductive or damaging.

We chase comfort in routines that initially feel helpful, only to discover they stifle our progress later.

When I micromanage, it feels like I’m in the driver’s seat at first. I’m taking charge, steering the ship. But soon, the constant bombardment of instructions and oversight starts to choke creativity.

Rather than fuelling the engine, my micromanagement saps passion and drives people away.

The illusion of control is revealed, and the reality is the stifling environment I have created that breeds frustration and resentment.

I might see procrastination as a well-needed stress-relief. I sit back, unwind, and put the task off for a bit. But the deadline that seemed so far away is now looming large.

Suddenly, the stress I thought I had evaded returns with a vengeance stronger than before.

Pressuring my children to academic success, I transfer my high expectations onto them. I tell myself that I am encouraging them, but my push for perfect grades replaces their love of learning with fear of failure.

Or, I overprotect my children, thinking it’s love, but it limits their independence.

Those are some of the life paradoxes. Neglecting to address them will cloud our minds, stir up our emotions, and lead to negative impacts on our wellbeing and the ones we care about.

In the past, I viewed happiness as a distant goal, a finish line to cross. Every problem felt like a detour from my path, an unwelcome interruption.

I sought validation incessantly, letting the fear of failure dictate my choices. This way of living turned my life into a relentless uphill climb.

They say that you only change your behavior when you are inspired enough, empowered enough, or done with suffering. For me, it was the latter that became the turning point.

Understanding life’s paradoxes became my key to unlocking what felt like a complete map that revealed the so-called “straight” path was disguised as dead ends.

For the past six years, it has become an obsession of mine to spot as many paradoxes as possible. They’re my teachers, reminding me that life isn’t black and white.

In this article, I share a selection of my favourite paradoxes that will challenge your perception of logic and reason.

But before we delve into this toolbox of paradoxes, let’s define what they are and why they trip us up. And, Why we crave clear-cut answers when life thrives in the space between?”

Definition: Paradox

The term ‘paradox’ is Greek, with ‘para’ meaning ‘different’ and ‘doxa’ meaning ‘opinion’.

A paradox is a statement or situation that appears contradictory or goes against common sense, challenging our conventional thinking, that arises from logical thought.

Why understanding Life Paradoxes Matters

Understanding paradoxes is to live with life’s contradictions and complexities, not finding perfect solutions. To move beyond simple answers and seeing things from multiple perspectives in everything we do.

Why We Struggle with Paradoxes

We are hardwired for certainty and predictability

I naturally seek clear, definitive answers and solutions to problems. This desire comes from my need for security and predictability in my life.

By their very nature, paradoxes present contradictory and disorienting ideas that can complicate decision-making.

I acknowledge the uncertainty of life and embrace not having all the answers. Stay present in the moment instead of worrying about what will happen next.

Instead of seeking definitive answers, I focus on understanding the situation and the outcomes.

Lastly, I accept and manage feelings of uncertainty and discomfort, rather than avoiding or suppressing them.

We Find Comfort in Duality

In the past, I often categorized things as good or bad, right or wrong.

What I love about paradoxes is that they challenge my binary thinking, forcing me to consider the possibility of both sides existing simultaneously, which is uncomfortable.

To constructively deal with the discomfort of duality, complexities and contradictions are part of life, I allow myself to see the validity of different viewpoints.

Lastly, I engage in critical thinking exercises and discussions with my wife and sons to challenge my thinking. This helps me to better understand and accept the paradoxical nature of many aspects of life.

We Get stuck in unhealthy emotional attachments

There are moments when my emotions pull me toward one side of a paradox, as though it’s a magnet and I’m helplessly drawn in.

The paradox of seeking perfection yet craving creativity, my fear of making mistakes might pull me closer to the side of perfection.

This creates an emotional tug-of-war blinding me to the value perfection, even when creativity holds the potential for growth.

When I find myself emotionally attached to one side of a paradox, I step back and observe my emotional reactions.

I ask myself:

Why am I responding this way?

What thoughts or beliefs are driving my emotions?

Self-awareness acts as my anchor, ensuring that my emotions do not dictate decisions I will regret later.

I also strive to understand and appreciate the other side of the paradox, even if it feels uncomfortable or challenges my beliefs.

This practice is uncomfortable and a work in progress, but it deepens my understanding and helps me react with more clarity and purpose.

We let our fear of failure guide our decisions

Paradoxes can feel like traps. Navigating them, I often feel I have failed at achieving one side or the other. This thinking discouraged further exploration.

To constructively deal with my fear of failure, I had to shift mindset and view failure not as a setback but as an opportunity to get to know both sides of a story.

Each failure is a story that unfolds on my way towards improvement.

Initially, fear consumed every scene. Then I began making minor changes to the script, and as my confidence increased, I took bigger ones.

In time, I learned that risk-taking is the biggest part of writing a good story.

Embracing fear and dancing with it has shown me the value of embracing vulnerability.

Hiding my weakness is extremely energy consuming and takes the focus away from leveraging my strengths.

We Have a Limited Perspective

My personal experiences and biases shape how I view the world.

Basis and distortions cloud my vision when faced with a paradox, hindering my ability to grasp the complete picture from different perspectives.

Recognizing my basis is the my first step towards expanding my worldview.

The next step is to address my limited perspectives and actively seek and listen to diverse viewpoints.

Those who know me, knows I love asking questions and to stay open to new information, even if it contradicts my current beliefs.

I also practice empathy by understanding and appreciate where others are coming from.

Lastly, I read and write to educate myself, to broaden my knowledge and share it with the world to hold myself accountable.

Let’s explore ten paradoxes that have had a negative effect on my life, so you can address them more constructively.

1. Chasing Happiness Makes You Unhappy

Ironically, the more I chased happiness, the more elusive it became.

Instead of actively seeking it out, I learned to let happiness emerge from doing activities well and spending time with people who mattered to me.

2. Avoiding Problems Only Magnifies Them

When I ignored my problems, they grew stronger. Now, I confront them directly, and they’re not so scary anymore.

Problems grow in proportion to how much I ignore them and so does the stress.

When I face problems head-on, the stress subsides.

3. Seeking Approval Makes You Less Likeable

The more I sought approval, the less authentic and likable I became.

Honesty and authenticity are more appreciated than constantly seeking to please others.

Today I won’t change my opinions to align with others.

When I voice my genuine thoughts, I invite others in to do the same and they respect me for that.

4. Fear of Failure Prevents Success

Once, I was on the brink of a great opportunity, a chance to step up, take risks, and potentially achieve significant success. But an invisible barrier held me back – my fear of failure.

It wasn’t just the fear of falling flat on my face or the potential embarrassment. It was more about the haunting question;

“What if I’m not good enough?”

This fear was a heavy anchor, grounding me to the spot and preventing me from moving forward.

Then, I realized the paradox: my fear of failure was the very thing that was causing me to fail. By not taking the risk, I was ensuring my own downfall. So, I decided to change my perspective. I started to see failure not as a terrifying end, but as a stepping stone, a learning experience on the path to success.

5. The More You Learn, The More You Understand How Much You Don’t Know

The more I learned, the more I realized the things I didn’t know yet.

Knowing that knowledge is infinite fosters deeper thinking, allowing me to better navigate complexity.

The more I learn about a subject, the more I discover new areas for further exploration.

Being humble about what I know prevents oversimplification and allows a holistic approach to knowledge.

6. The More You Try to Control, The Less Control You Have

My excessive attempts to control every aspect of my life often led to increased stress and a loss of control.

The more I force I use to control uncontrollable aspects, the more frustration and disappointment I create for myself and others.

By learning to let go and allowing some things to unfold naturally, I feel a greater sense of control and peace.

Controlling every detail, I miss valuable experiences and life itself.

7. Hating Others Harms You More Than Them

I used to cling to anger to where it started taking a toll on my relationships, work, and overall well-being.

My feelings did not affect those I disliked at all. Hence, it was more damaging to me, as it deprived me of peace and happiness.

Pouring energy into hatred fuelled my stress, created emotional suffering, and robbed me of peace and joy.

I found that I was using anger as an unhealthy way to cover up fear and hurt, which made anger my default reaction.

Through acceptance and forgiveness, my anger subsided, allowing me to express myself freely.

8. The More You hold on to The Past, The Less You Can Embrace The Future

Dwelling on the past kept me overly preoccupied with past events or failures.

Not being fully present and open to new experiences or opportunities prevented me from moving forward towards future goals.

Realizing my brain’s tendency to focus on the negative, I learned to shed past sorrows and failures. This opened up space in my life to be present and craft my future.

9. The More You Try to Impress Others, The Less Impressed They Are

I learned the hard way that impressing others is a complex human motivator rooted in social and evolutionary psychology.

My fundamental need for belonging was driven by fear, and impressing others had become a way for me to gain approval, validation, and acceptance within a group.

I relied heavily on external validation for my self-worth and often had an external locus of control.

Some uncomfortable soul-searching revealed my reliance on external factors for validation, rather than my own values, for happiness.

The constant pursuit of impressing others has many downsides.

The pressure to maintain a perfect image was draining, leading to stress, anxiety, and even burnout.

When my self-worth hinged on external validation, any criticism or rejection became devastating and shattered my fragile self-esteem.

My relationships lacked a genuine connection. It took me years to develop a healthy sense of self-worth, independent of external validation.

Today, I am the only person who remains available – Me.

10. The More You Rush, The Slower You Go

When I rushed, my focus narrowed. I became fixated on the end goal and missed crucial details along the way. This led to mistakes, requiring me to backtrack and redo tasks, ultimately slowing me down.

Psychologists refer to this as Attention Narrowing.

While the brain can process vast amounts of information, multitasking and time pressure can overwhelm it, leading to Cognitive Overload.

Rushing sets off the Sympathetic Nervous System responsible for the fight-or-flight response. It is a system optimised for fighting or running to safety, not going slow and deliberate.

When the fight-or-flight response kicked in, it was like a fog rolling over my mind. Creativity evaporated, resulting in more stress, which made it even harder to focus.

Rushing through the day affected my decision-making and hindered my progress.

I had to retrain my thinking and adopt a mindful, strategic approach to avoid rushing and achieve my goals efficiently.

Today, I Embrace Slow Thinking and take the time to think through a problem or task carefully.

Often, the initial time investment saves time in the long run and I get twice as much done.

In rare cases where it’s not timesaving, I still learn more when I am mindful than when I rush.

Final Thoughts

Life’s paradoxes are the bittersweet knots that weave together growth, challenge, and the richness of the human experience.

Once you step out of the social norms of interacting with paradox you become an outsider for most people. This is the price you pay for questioning the unwritten rules and expectations of how people should behave in a particular culture.

The tension between following the crowd and forging your own path, even if it means being different is at times painful.

Furthermore, the shift doesn’t happen overnight.

It is a journey of trail and error understanding paradoxes impact, and then, bit by bit, turning them into catalysts for personal growth.

With that said, if you have the courage to invite life’s paradoxes in, they will help you question damaging assumptions, refine your thinking process, and ultimately, create fulfillment in life.

This shift doesn’t happen overnight. It is a journey of trail and error understanding paradoxes impact, and then, bit by bit, turning them into catalysts for personal growth.

Embracing life’s paradoxes isn’t just a choice, it’s a necessity. Only when I started to confront and unravel them, did I begin to see measurable progress.

Paradoxes, once daunting, became stepping stones on my journey towards self-improvement.

Now, when life throws challenges, which it does most of the time, instead of reacting impulsively, I pause, tune into my emotion, and respond constructively.

The paradox of change is that change often takes longer to arrive than expected, but when it does, it happens faster than expected.

First, change happens gradually, then suddenly. When I realize this, I started to see and interact with life differently.

It is within paradoxes that I find fulfilment, learning to appreciate even the most trivial things.

Footnotes ⇲

Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2014). “A Proposed Framework for Preventing Perfectionism and Promoting Resilience and Mental Health Among Vulnerable Children and Adolescents”. Psychology in the Schools, 51(9), 899–912.

Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Deci, E. L. (2006). “Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Goal Contents in Self-Determination Theory: Another Look at the Quality of Academic Motivation”. Educational Psychologist, 41(1), 19–31.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change”. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111–131.

Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). “The Strength Model of Self-Control”. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being”. American Psychologist.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation”. Psychological Bulletin.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper.