Paradoxical Intention

Viktor Frankl’s “Paradoxical Intention” Technique

Posted by Keegan Wade on Friday, November 20, 2009 Under: Workplace

Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, a renowned psychiatrist, and the founder of a branch of psychotherapy called logotherapy. Logotherapy’s core assumption is that man is primarily motivated towards meaning (vs. pleasure, power, etc.), and that meaning can be found even in suffering (e.g., building reports using Report Builder 1.0). Accordingly, Frankl characterizes pathological behavior as that which prevents one from experiencing meaning.

One of Frankl’s more interesting observations is that paranoid behavior can sometimes be self-prophesying. Frankl observed that, “fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes.” In other words, the act of trying to directly control a fear or compulsion triggers a type of anticipatory anxiety which actually has the effect of bolstering the fear or compulsion.

To dispel this sort of neurotic behavior, Frankl devised a technique called “paradoxical intention,” which is an unconscious stepping out of the paranoid behavior at hand. Two examples will suffice to demonstrate the nature of this technique. Frankl writes:

1) “A young physician consulted me because of his fear of perspiring. Whenever he expected an outbreak of perspiration, this anticipatory anxiety was enough to precipitate excessive sweating. In order to cut this circle formation I advised the patient, in the event that sweating should recur, to resolve deliberately to show people how much he could sweat. A week later he returned to report that whenever he met anyone who triggered his anticipatory anxiety, he said to himself, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!” The result was that, after suffering from his phobia for four years, he was able, after a single session, to free himself permanently of it within one week.”

2) “Paradoxical intention can also be applied in cases of sleep disturbance. The fear of sleeplessness results in a hyper-intention to fall asleep, which in turn, incapacitates the patient to do so. To overcome this particular fear, I usually advise the patient to do just the opposite, that is, to stay awake as long as possible. In other words, the hyper intention to fall asleep, arising from the anticipatory anxiety of not being able to do so, must be replaced by the paradoxical intention not to fall asleep, which soon will be followed by sleep.”

Put another way: By turning one’s fears and compulsions on their heads, this can cut off the anticipatory anxiety that triggers and reinforces them, thereby diffusing them. Kind of like a reverse psychology sort of tactic.

In the context of technical consulting, I think that a lot of tech folks (many of whom are introverted) tend to experience fears linked to:

–  Public presentations, speeches, training and mentoring, interviews
–  Conversing with imposing people
–  Building reports using Report Builder 1.0
–  Others?

Can Frankl’s Paradoxical Intention tactic be used to diffuse these kinds of fears? I don’t know – I haven’t done any research on the subject beyond what I related above. And on that note, it’s easy to imagine circumstances where employing this tactic could fail miserably. So buyer beware.

Disclaimer: The journey of personal development, healing,  developing self esteem and self love are a deeply individual experiences, how long it takes and the results achieved, do vary from person to person.

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