The Beauty of Simplicity (and Economicity)

Leonardo da Vinci used to say that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”; Isaac Newton thought that “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things”; and Steve Jobs said: “That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Finally, the great Middle Age philosopher and theologian  William of Ockham clarified that “Entia non sunt multiplicanda preter necessitate[1].” The famous Occam’s razor.

One of the features that I particularly appreciate in Control-Mastery Theory is the fact that (like all the good theories) it is able to explain complex phenomena with a few basic concepts and to provide coherent understanding  of apparently confused clinical manifestations thanks to a really innovative and acute perspective. Moreover, CMT enables you to derive empirically validated clinical indications from what you have understood.

Consider the following clinical example. Laura is a thirty year old patient who, at the beginning of a new romantic relationship, presents herself as a bright and determined woman very committed to her work as an attorney and quite independent. She lives alone far from her family, has a group of friends and is quite successful in her career. However, once she recognizes that her new boyfriend is really interested in her, Laura becomes more and more demanding: she calls him several times a day asking for his advice, tells him that she feels unable to trust her autonomous decisions and appears to be overly preoccupied with “silly things” such as the opportunity to buy a jacket of a certain color or a bag of a specific brand, and shows feelings of inadequacy and envy toward her friends. At the same time, she appears to be completely self-centered and uninterested in the problems and concerns of her boyfriend  and is dismissive or derogatory when talks about topics he is interested in. Moreover, she becomes quite cold with him when he appears needy or in pain. Among the traumas of Laura’s life is the fact that her father abandoned her and her mother when she was quite young, and he subsequently  sued them because he thought that they had asked for more money than legally permitted.

How to make sense of these multiplicity of data? How many concepts do we need?

CMT says that three concepts are enough: trauma + pathogenic belief + testing.

In order to make sense, among other things, of her father’s behavior, Laura had developed the pathogenic belief that her needs are too burdensome for another person, in particular for a man, and that she does not deserve to be loved and taken care of. For this reason, she tries to hide her needs and fragility, but when she feels safer, in particular when she falls in love with a new man (see post 13), she starts testing him through transference tests by non-compliance and passive into-active tests by compliance. Nothing more.

From a CMT perspective this means that the clinician has to help Laura feel entitled to ask for what she needs.  The therapist must help her realize that her needs are not too burdensome and that as an adult she can make sense of and cope with her father’s behavior in a different way --  without questioning the legitimacy of her needs and her right to be loved for how she is. More than this, the clinician has to allow her experience this fact within the therapeutic relationship by providing a corrective relational experience. This is often the difficult part of our work, but this is our job and the reason why we are paid by patients.

Weiss himself was struck by the beauty of simplicity as evidenced by the paper he wrote in 1947 about formal beauty. He was twenty-three at that time and had not yet started his analytic training.  Nonetheless,  his paper was published in an analytic journal and was deeply appreciated by Ernest Kris, someone who really knew art and psychoanalysis.

So the next time someone will say critically that CMT is a “simple” theory we can smile and reply with abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann: “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”. And, of course,  this is not simple at all, as it is not simple to be a CMT therapist. But this is another story.





Weiss, J. (1947). A psychological theory of formal beauty. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, XVI, 3, 391-400

[1] Beings do not have to be multiplied if it is not really necessary.