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The Paradox of Forced Spontaneity

Many of us fail to realise ironic behavioural traps. Spontaneity is one.

The character Homer Simpson once posed the question: “Could God make a burrito that was so hot that even God couldn’t eat it? Could he make a stone so heavy that even he couldn’t lift it?’’ There is in human life a weird problem from which many of the main mental health problems arise. This is the behavioural effects of what is known as a paradox. Essentially, what we mean by this is any situation in which two messages contradict each other but are given at the same time. These problems are known well in philosophy but very little time is given to them in psychology. This is mainly because many psychologists and psychotherapists don’t know what to do with them.

When someone requests, either directly or indirectly, to act spontaneously, you can become awkwardly blocked, even feeling a distinct sense of nausea. The ‘be spontaneous’ paradox can occur anywhere—within couples, within families, or at work. A communicational paradox is one in which we are given two contradictory messages at the same time. It is the situation where one person requests something of another that in reality can only occur spontaneously and naturally and cannot be requested or brought about voluntarily—things such as laughter, love, interest, appreciation, desire, tenderness, etc. When this paradox occurs, we become stuck in a double bind. For example, someone may say, “I’m taking a picture of you. Please smile. No! Not like that! A big, natural, spontaneous smile!”

The Impractical Request

A request to “Be spontaneous!” is to demand behaviour which, by its very nature, can only occur spontaneously and therefore cannot occur as a result of having been requested. For example, a well-meaning mother demands her son must study, not because she wants him to but because she wants him to want to, of his own free will. She wants spontaneous compliance, not just obedience to a rule.

A person suffering with insomnia is a great example of the ‘be spontaneous’ paradox because typically they put themselves in this paradox of ‘being spontaneous’! The more they try to achieve the naturally occurring phenomenon we know as sleep by forcing it to happen, the more they stay awake.

A patient entering into an episode of depression shifts his focus to the positives in his life and tries to bring about a ‘good mood’ or ‘positive feeling’ about his ‘great’ life but also becomes trapped. The feelings he is seeking to conjure up are by virtue of what they are ‘spontaneous’ and therefore cannot be willed to happen by force. His attempt to escape his depression actually confirms and worsens the thing he’s trying to escape from.

Violating Nature

Sexual arousal or an orgasm can only occur spontaneously, as that’s the kind of phenomenon they are. The more strongly they are willed, awaited, and desired, the less likely they are to occur. This can be regularly seen when men suffer from sexual problems and book a ‘planned spontaneous’ romantic weekend away. We can then be assured that the very problem he or his partner is seeking to solve will only be exacerbated. We can see also that feelings, behaviours and relationships that naturally occur, can only occur naturally when we are not looking to make them happen. They can only occur causally. This can also become a real difficulty when athletes become blocked and attempt to perfect their skills, only to find those skills slip further out of their reach.

Overcoming the Trap of Forced Spontaneity

  • Recognise it. Learn how to detect when someone asks you to 'act spontaneously'. Be aware of this when it’s meant but unsaid or is perversely implied. Your answer can be multiple. If you are continually trying to force spontaneous behaviour, stop, take a breath and see if there is a way of letting nature take its course.
  • Take a helicopter view of the situation and communication. If someone else is placing you in a paradox, talk about it. Explain the paradox and how you will not stay stuck in it.
  • Don’t try too hard. For some of us, our natural tendency when facing a difficult situation is to try harder and to put more effort into dealing with whatever is going wrong. Mostly, this means a tendency to stubbornly insist on reapplying attempted solutions that do not work, or testing ourselves continuously, always looking for new proof of our abilities. This has the effect of increasing our need for proof and consequently, increasing our own personal insecurity. In other cases, our efforts are aimed at controlling our own emotions and impulsiveness. In this case, too, the most frequent result is a greater inability to control our emotional reactions. But it is also interesting to observe that the people who are good at checking their impulsiveness very often end up in a process of obsessively checking their own reactions. This leads to a compulsive need for control, even over inconsequential things. The final result is that when the control is successful, the person loses control over the control, and it becomes a compulsion.


Gibson, P. (2021). !2 Most Common Mental Traps. Strategic Science Books.

About the Author

Padraic Gibson, D.Psych, is a Consultant Clinical Psychotherapist and is the Clinical Director of The OCD Clinic®, and director of Training and Organization Consultation at The Coaching Clinic®, Dublin. He is senior research associate at Dublin City University.

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