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THE Universal Paradox

The Paradox That Everyone Faces and Few Overcome

Posted 1/28/2018

Revised 3/17/2020

Everyone wants to think highly of themselves and conversely, no one wants to believe they have zero worth or value. Because everyone wants to believe they are lovable and competent, when they receive negative messages from other people or from their own self-condemnations, it places them in a paradox of self-doubt. They wonder am I the good person I want to be or am I the bad person that other people seem to say that I am? This is THE Universal Paradox that everyone faces, and struggles with to some degree or another sometime in their life. On whichever side a person lands in their belief of self, this viewpoint determines their course in life.


Do you believe that you are lovable and competent? If so, then you will likely form friendships with others and perhaps find a mate. You will also likely obtain education and a career. Eric Ericson hinted at this universal paradox when he identified his Psychosocial Stage of Development called Isolation versus Intimacy. Unfortunately, he saw only half of the equation of the universal paradox, the universal paradox goes much deeper than that. Researchers have found that some people resolve the paradoxes of relationship and career simultaneously (such as in the case of a housewife or househusband), while others form careers and relationships separately. Nevertheless, when either or both are acquired, they give a person a sense of self-efficacy and a positive self-esteem. 


If you land on the opposite side, and come to believe that you are not lovable, then your course in life will be very different. Not believing that you are lovable usually results in a self-fulfilling prophesy where others come to doubt you also. If you doubt that you are lovable or competent then you will erect walls of protection that virtually keep your relationships superficial. Without deep intimacy, relationships merely exist and oftentimes fail. People with self-doubts frequently conclude that, “since they will not succeedwhat’s the use in even trying something new?” If they do develop the gumption to attempt something, their doubts of success lead to halfhearted efforts that usually do cause them to fail. Consequently, their failure to gain a level of education that would result in a good job then leads them to greater self-doubt, shame, poor self-esteem and a negative self-image.


Overtime, this person generally becomes hypersensitive to the remarks of others reading only criticisms and judgement from typically innocuous and harmless statements. This forms what Christian psychologist, Dr. James Dobson refers to as Wounded Spirit Syndrome. While the term wounded spirit originated with Christian author Frank Peretti,[1] it does accurately describe the mental disposition of a person who feels constantly attacked by the comments and opinions of others.


Contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t self-hatred that causes the wounded spirited person to experience this problem. And, it is not that they love themselves too little. The apostle Paul exposes the truth of this when he writes in Ephesians 5:29 that, “After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body….” The problem in Wounded Spirit Syndrome is that the wounded person loves themselves, and sometimes perhaps too much. Think of it in these terms. If they didn’t love themselves, then the negative comments and judgments that come from others should have no effect on them. Consequently, the more a person loves self the more egregious negative comments would be, and the more sensitive they would become to even the slightest hint of unacceptability.


The cycle usually starts with a wound from simple parental discipline where a child’s view of self turns negative. It all begins when a person no longer sees value in self but begins to see badness instead. It can happen with a single traumatic event such as hearing “You will never amount to anything” or from ten thousand small events where the child is constantly being called-down for bad behaviors.


As mentioned in previous articles, psychologist John Watson (1878-1958) introduced the term “tabula rasa” to describe the English philosopher John Locke’s view that the infant’s mind is a blank slate upon which experience is written. Watson argued that what a child learns determines what it will be.[2] The idea of a blank slate is only partially true. While children do start out life without preconceptions, what Locke and Watson failed to take into account was the existence of an innate bent toward choosing pleasure and rejecting pain that gives children a propensity toward self-centeredness and “wanting.” By age two or three a child’s wanting can become quite a serious struggle as their newfound mobility puts everything desirable within reach.


Because not everything a child wants is safe for them, most parents intervene with some form of restraint. Thus, laws and rules become established in families as a matter of pragmatism. Parent’s institute normative laws by saying “Don’t touch that” or “Stay away from this.” Embedded within their explicit messages of restraint are two implicit messages. Discipline and restraint can either communicate an individual’s inadequacy or a parent’s desire to protect out of love. It’s not a matter of chance which one the child will internalize. Due to its propensity to prefer pleasure over pain, most children will find the parent’s limitations as unloving thus causing the child to conclude over time that it is unloved and consequently unlovable. What must a parent do?


Immediately following the Lord’s command to Adam and Eve to “multiply” and to “fill the earth”, He then gave them a command to “subdue the earth”. The Hebrew wording “and subdue” used here is kabash. It shows up only one other time in the Old Testament where in Judges 16:5 the Philistines were plotting to tie Sampson up “and subdue” him. In this case, the most likely inference for the meaning of kabash was to restrain him. Of interest, the NLT renders kabash as “and govern it.”


The Hebrew word for “the earth” is 'erets. While that phrase can refer to the “wildness” of the planet including the beasts and creatures that could threaten Adam and Eve,[3] & [4] 'erets also allows it to be used as a euphemism referring to the brutish nature of uncivilized people and nations of the earth by how it is used in Genesis 6:11 which states “Now God saw that the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence.” (NLT) Since the ground itself is not violent, and needs little governance other than to make room for additional people, in this case the word 'erets is most likely used once again as a euphemism referring to the people who inhabit it. Furthermore, the Genesis 1:28 phrase “and subdue the earth” is used specifically in the context of procreation. Since humans were created from the “dust of the ground” or earth (Ge. 2:7), the most reasonable interpretation of 'erets, is yet another euphemism aimed at the children that Adam and Eve would produce. The combination of euphemisms, kabash with 'erets now amount to not just the Cultural Mandate that theologians see but also a “Mandate to Parent” whereby Adam and Eve are called to restrain, discipline, subdue and govern their children. In his expository notes regarding Genesis 1:28, Thomas Constable agrees. He writes, “It is particularly a godly seed that God has charged the human race [Adam and Eve] to raise up.”[5] Since God posed this parenting mandate to Adam before Eve physically arrived, God saw ahead of time that discipline would need to be primarily Adam’s (the father’s) responsibility and not the primary duty of Eve. 


No good discussion of addressing family issues would overlook Genesis 2:24 which is the foundation of families. While Richard Thomas in his book Sacred Marriage is not off base when he says that God designed marriage to make two people holy more than to make them happy,[6] he and many others are missing the real subject of 2:24. It states “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” (NASB). While many have concluded that this verse is promoting the oneness, intimacy and preeminence of the martial relationship, while that point can’t be dismissed, it is only a secondary goal. Here the New American Standard makes clearer what our main subject actually is. If we take the middle section of vs. 24 out, leaving only the phrases “For this reason” and “the flesh” we see the real subject. We see for the reason of the flesh that the two will produce. In other words, the couple’s union is not really about satisfying something for themselves, but rather it is for the sake of the children, the new flesh that they produce that they become one. Thomas is correct in asserting that holiness is an important goal. What should not be overlooked however is the holiness of the children. God is looking for godly children so Malachi says in 2:15. This is why God hates divorce (vs. 2:16), because it does not produce the godly children He wants. This is a completely different way of looking at the purpose of marriage than what our egocentric, “what can I get out of it” worldview, would have us to think. We must not forget, marriage was an institution made of God for the purpose of procreatively filling the world with godly persons. This means, that while God wants marriage to be as enjoyable as possible (cf. 1 Timothy 6:17d) parents must focus their attentions more on what is best for raising godly children than on their own personal pleasure. Fifty percent[7] of us have gotten that backwards in America, as the present rate of divorce proves that. Not to mention the 52 million children (as of 2010)[8] that have been aborted since 1973 as parents have put their own interests ahead of their unborn children. While God does want parents to discipline their children, He does not condone abuse.


S. McGill, writes, “A right to rule is not a right to tyrannize… and that our dominion was designed, like that of Him who designed it, to be exercised with wisdom, rectitude, and compassion”[9] The Ephesians 6:4 passage “Fathers, do not exasperate your children” helps to confirm this. While Paul’s charge to fathers implies them as primarily responsible for discipline, an alternate translation allows for the word “parents” to be used instead of just singling out “fathers.” Certainly, discipline should not be the sole responsibility of a father nor should nurturing a child be the sole responsibility of a mother. The truth is that both should strive to provide a balance between loving and disciplining their child so that a wounded spirit does not develop, nor does a child become unruly.


Research has conclusively shown that the best style of parenting is Authoritative.[10], [11] & [12] It uses a verbally collaborative style[13] that teaches a child that it is restrained not because it is bad, but because the parents want to protect him or her from harm because the child is deeply loved. This desire to protect out of love must be voiced rather than allowing the child to conclude that it is not being loved or that it is unlovable. As Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out, people can comply with almost anything if they can see a good reason for doing so.[14] Children also need to understand why it is good for them to obey. Furthermore, what child accepts the parental rationalization “Because I told you so!” Excellent parenting fills a child’s slate with what the child should value and not necessarily what the child would value for itself. Left to his/her own devices, a child will determine for itself what is important; what isn’t; what is good and what is bad. The role of parents is then to shape and mold the child’s views so that he or she values what God says is ultimately good and rejects what is ultimately evil. Of course, the Bible lays out what a child should value and what it should shun.


One of the major goals of training up a child in the way he should go, should include teaching him/her about his/her values system, which of course came from our first parents Adam and Eve. Just knowing that he or she is created that way, will help him/her understand it, and hopefully allow that child to get a jump on being able to control the sinful-nature that is in all of us. Conversely, when that doesn’t happen, some parents teach their children dysfunctional ways of adapting.


For example, some parents teach their children what seems like an innocent phrase designed to dissolve conflict, but one that has serious consequences as a child becomes an adult. Some children are taught to use a comeback phrase like “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me” when they are picked on or bullied. This phrase sounds sweet but can lead to disastrous results. First of all, it is not true. The Bible teaches us that words do harm. Second, a phrase like the one mentioned, teaches children that entering into a verbal discussion with someone is bad and is something that they should avoid. Instead, children should be taught how to mesh their values with the respectable values of others thus building healthy conflict resolution skills. They should do so because; stuffing feelings, avoiding conflict and suppressing anger are all detrimental to relationships as well as leading to psychological and physiological stress which ultimately results in a shortened life. Thus in the truest sense, Proverbs 18:21a is correct―”The tongue holds the power of life and death.” When someone does put another person down they not only injure that person psychologically and physiologically but enter into a codependent relationship with them that we call Wounded Spirit Syndrome.


A Codependent Relationship, Complimentary Schismogenesis[15] or Wounded Spirit Syndrome are really different terms describing the same thing. They are found in virtually all relationships. There are both negative and positive forms of it. In the negative type, it usually begins with some preliminary injury to one or both persons’ self-image during childhood.


Once people begin thinking poorly about themselves they begin to watch for messages from other people that either reinforce this self-belief or disconfirm it. Many people make efforts to refute the negative ways they think about self. Anytime you see someone becoming defensive, know that their negative image of self is being reinforced making them feel even worse. Many will fight back when they believe they are being attacked in this way. When a person believes they are rejected by, or put down by the comments, actions or even inaction of others, this reinforces the Universal Paradox and heaps a preponderance of evidence toward a poor belief about self. What comes next is coping.


A person who has paradoxical doubts about self and who then succumbs to those beliefs, often reacts to the emotional pain of negative self-beliefs with some type of self-soothing or comforting. This can take a multitude of forms including the following:


  • Use Substances — people may medicate negative feelings of self with alcohol, drugs, antidepressants, or tobacco.
  • Protect Self-Image — the self-image injured person may lash out in anger toward unwanted negative messages in an attempt to control those from others.
  • Lie — the self-image injured person may hide the truth of their actions in order to protect important relationships yet preserve self-image.
  • Improve Appearance — some may generally seek ways to disprove negative beliefs about self through developing an attractive appearance.
  • Boast about accomplishments — such as the number of degrees they hold, what kind of car they drive or how large their house is. Boastful comments are used to seek affirmations rather than condemnations for a sagging self-image.
  • Act Superior — by becoming hyper-critical and judgmental of what others think, say or believe the wounded spirited person seeks to elevate self by putting others down.
  • Associate with high status people — including lawyers, doctors, politicians, wealthy people and sports teams. Being connected with those of higher status implies acceptance by acceptable people, worth and value
  • Use food — the stomach has receptors that detect sugar which causes the release of serotonin (a soothing agent) in the brain. Food is also a symbol of security that soothes a person in tenuous circumstances.
  • Use sex — the orgasm produces dopamine and oxytocin which cause euphoria in the brain. Also, getting someone to be sexual or do something sexually unusual can be an ego boost.

Dr. Henry Cloud, Christian psychologist, makes this poignant observation of how Christians themselves attempt to protect their self-images. He writes in his book Changes That Heal:

“It is interesting to compare a legalistic church with a good AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] group. In the church, it is culturally unacceptable to have problems; that is called being sinful. In the AA group, it is culturally unacceptable to be perfect; that is called denial. In one setting, people look better but get worse, and in the other, they look worse but get better…. The sad thing is that many of us come to Christ because we are sinners, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to pretend that we are not!”[16]


Frank S. Page, PH.D., President and Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, who oversees 46,000 churches and 16 million members, believes that the church is unfortunately the last place where people care to be transparent and honest about themselves and their hang-ups.”[17] Whatever a person chooses as a self-soothing coping response to their injured image of self, is almost always objectionable in some way to important others, which is why many people try to hide those. But when found out, ensures that the negative critical comments toward them will continue thus causing more self-deprecating thinking; followed by the need to lash out; make oneself appear more important or soothe-self more. Enabling occurs when someone either feeds the self-deprecating beliefs with additional negative comments; or when they actually provide some type of unhealthy coping such as buying food, liquor, drugs or cigarettes for that person; or by condoning the negative behaviors by saying nothing against it at all. Oftentimes these forms of coping lead to enslaving addiction.


Thus, two people help to maintain dysfunctional behavior in each other making both the relationship a schismogenesis (relational dysfunction) as well as complimentary (both contribute something to perpetuate the dysfunction). In many relationships both partners can alternate roles by taking turns at being either the perpetrator (enabler) and then followed by the one who copes (victim or addict). It is also quite common through a person’s own self judgment that they can experience a codependent relationship with themselves becoming their own worst critic. This is extremely prevalent in many churches where congregants adopt a belief that they must be perfect.


While negative codependency (THE Universal Paradox of all people) is what we have been describing, positive codependency is what God designed mankind to experience. Just the fact that people have the capacity for addiction (obsessing over what they value) tells us that God has intentions for using it somehow. Positive codependency is not a cycle of injury but rather a demonstration of valuing someone through showing love to them rather than devaluing them through criticism, negative judgment and invalidation. Everyone enjoys being judged in positive ways. It helps them to see and to believe that they have worth and value. Instead of becoming addicted to some substance or pathological behavior, people addict themselves to each other in a scenario such as this. The best example is in marriage where God gives each partner a second chance to repair the inherent damage caused by what parents have inflicted on them as children while offering a solution to their universal paradox. Dr. John Ortberg, Senior Pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, quoting Harry Stack Sullivan, the founder of interpersonal psychology, says, it takes people to make people sick and it takes people to make people well.[18]

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Works Cited:

[1] Wounded Spirits, Frank Peretti, Nashville: Thomas Nelson/Word, 2000. In James Dobson (Ed.) Bringing Up Boys: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Shaping the Next generation of Men, Wheaton: Tyndale House publishers, Inc., 2001. (p. 37).

[2] Human Development: A Life Span View, 2nd Ed., R. Kail, and J. Cavanaugh, Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2000. (p. 19).

[3] Commentary on Genesis 1:28, John Trapp Complete Commentary, John Trapp, 1865-1868. Retrieved 02/18/2016 from: http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jtc/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=1.

[4] Commentary on Genesis 1:28, Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. Thomas Coke, 1801-1803. Retrieved 02/18/2016 from: http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=1.

[5] Commentary on Genesis 1:28. Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable, Thomas Constable. 2012. Retrieved 02/18/2016 from: http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=1.

[6]Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make us Happy?, Gary Thomas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000. (p. 23).

[7] Research on Divorce: Continuing Trends and New Developments, P. R. Amato, Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, (2010). (pp. 650-666). In, Ron L. Deal (Ed.) Monitoring the Impact of Divorce and Remarriage on Families: Important New Findings, Christian Counseling Today, Volume 18, No. 2, Forest: American Association of Christian Counselors, 2011. (p. 49).

[8] Abortion in America, Alan Sears,. Christian Counseling Today, Volume 19, No. 1, Forest: American Association of Christian Counselors, 2011. (p. 23).

[9] Commentary on “Genesis 1:28", Joseph S. Exell, The Biblical Illustrator, New York, 1905-1909. Retrieved 02/18/2016 from: http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/view.cgi?bk=ge&ch=1.

[10] Effective parenting during the early adolescent transition, D. Baumrind, 1991. In P. A. Cowan & E. M. Hetherington (Eds.) Family transitions, Hillsdale: Erlbaum. In R. Kail, and J. Cavanaugh (Eds.) Human Development: A Life Span View, 2nd Ed., Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2000. (pp. 242-243).

[11] Peer status in boys with and without attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: Predictions from overt and covert antisocial behavior, social isolation, and authoritative parenting beliefs. S. P. Hinshaw; B. A. Zupan; C. Simmel; J. T. Nigg & S. Melnick, Child Development, 68, 1997. (pp. 880-896). In R. Kail, and J. Cavanaugh (Eds.) Human Development: A Life Span View, 2nd Ed., Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2000. (pp. 242-243).

[12] Socialization in the family: Ethnic and ecological perspectives, R. D. Parke & R. Buriel, In W. Damon (Ed.) Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 3, New York: Wiley, 1998. In R. Kail, and J. Cavanaugh (Eds.) Human Development: A Life Span View, 2nd Ed., Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2000. (pp. 242-243).

[13] (Baumrind, 1975, 1991b). In R. Kail, and J. Cavanaugh (Eds.) Human Development: A Life Span View, 2nd Ed., Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2000. (pp. 241-242).

[14]Surviving, Bruno Bettelheim, New York: Knopf, 1979. In Deborah Tannen (Ed.) That‘s Not What I Meant!: How Conversation Style Makes or Breaks Relationships, New York: Harper, 2011. (p. 20).

[15]Gregory Bateson, 1972. In Deborah Tannen (Ed.) That‘s Not What I Meant!: How Conversation Style Makes or Breaks Relationships, New York: Harper, 2011. (p. 129).

[16] Healing the Soul in Community, Sue Kim-Ahn and Monte Fisher, Christian Counseling eNews, January, American Association of Christian Counselors, Forest Virginia, 2016. Retrieved 02/22/2016 from: http://www.aacc.net/2015/12/01/healing-the-soul-in-community/.

[17] Crossing the Threshold: When Suicide Hits the Family of God, Frank S. Page, Christian Counseling Today, Volume 21 Issue.2, Forest: American Association of Christian Counselors, 2015. (pp. 18-20).