The Oedipus Principle: Don’t Run from Your Fears

“Fear of getting hurt, ironically, increases your risk of getting hurt.” — Ed Latimore

In the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, the play’s eponymous hero, Oedipus, was born to the king and queen of Thebes. At his birth, a prophecy was given — that Oedipus would one day kill his father and marry his mother.

The king and queen were horrified. Such a child could not be allowed to live, so they gave him to a slave to be set out upon a hilltop to die — barbaric sounding, but common practice for unwanted babies at the time.

However, the slave who was given Oedipus took pity on him. Instead of leaving Oedipus out to die, he gave him to a friend — a shepherd — to be raised and nurtured as his own. And so he lived, and he grew from baby to boy to youth, never knowing that he was the prince of Thebes.

One day, as a young man, Oedipus was walking down the road towards Thebes when a man in a horse and carriage attempted to pass him along the road. It was the king, but he did not announce himself as such, and Oedipus didn’t know. When the king demanded that Oedipus move out of the way so he could pass, Oedipus refused, and a fight ensued. In the melee that followed Oedipus killed the king; then continued on to Thebes and married the king’s widow, who was his mother.

Perhaps the prophecy would have been fulfilled if they’d kept the child. Perhaps not. But the actions they took to avoid the prophecy led directly to its culmination.

There’s a psychological condition referred to as Oedipus Complex. Clinically, its definition is the desire to kill (or otherwise subdue) the parent of the same sex, and bed the parent of the opposite sex. However, there’s a second principle to draw from the story of Oedipus — I call it the Oedipus Principle.

The Oedipus Principle is that, when you want to avoid something, you move so far away from your feared outcome that you run straight into it from the other side.

For example: being so afraid that you’re unattractive that you become awkward and stiff and uncomfortable in your movements, which in turn diminishes your attractiveness. You would have been perfectly fine if you’d only been comfortable, but your endeavors to avoid being unattractive only move you closer to the outcome you fear.

Or — being so afraid of being alone that you get married young and recklessly, only to set the foundation for a rocky relationship that ends badly and leaves you alone in the end, just as you’ve been trying to avoid all along.

A friend once told me, “we have a tendency to manifest our worst fears in our life” — and it’s true. As a general statement, what we hold onto and focus on is what we create. More pragmatically, the actions we take in response to a fear are often overreactions, and they move us closer to the things we’re afraid of, not farther away from it — just as Oedipus’s father was so afraid of being killed by his son that he sent him away — so far away that he ran into him coming from the other direction on the road to Thebes, and walked straight into the fulfillment of the prophecy.

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