“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
In counseling and psychotherapy there is a therapeutic technique that is often referred to as the “paradoxical intention.” This technique, although highly effective, is seldom applied or even suggested by psychotherapists. It is based on a strategy frequently used in medical treatments were a small dose of the disease is prescribed in order to allow the body to develop a tolerance, thereby becoming more capable of resisting that disease. What results is immunity. Most childhood vaccinations that you received worked on this principle. It is also the reason that stimulants are often prescribed for people who are hyperactive, sedatives, such as benzodiazepines can cause agitation, and is the basic mechanism that makes antibiotics effective. When applied as a part of psychotherapy however, it is usually met with deep and stubborn resistance.
The psychotherapeutic strategy of the paradoxical intention was a strategy first introduced by Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor. If you’re ever feeling sorry for yourself, I suggest that you read his book Man’s Search for Meaning, his story of concentration camp survival. The book can be read easily within one day and is freely available on the Internet. In it, he explains what that experience of survival was like in the first part, and in the second part he outlines his therapeutic philosophy which he called Logotherapy. After surviving his ordeal in World War II, he returned to the counseling room convinced that the best way for most of his clients to improve their situations was to challenge them to take on brief challenges in order to increase their tolerance for what he believed was the realities of life. Frankl’s usage of the paradoxical intention was adapted by later cognitive behavioral therapists such as Albert Ellis and Donald Meichenbaum (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/healthy-dose-fear/ )
There is a historical basis to the paradoxical intention. Stoicism, a school of Greek philosophy founded in the third century BC by the philosopher Zeno, has a similar logic. Contrary to the contemporary interpretation of the word stoic, ancient Greek Stoics were not dour, negative, or unhappy. They considered themselves to be realists, determined to have a fulfilling and happy life despite the harsh realities that life throws at us. For them, pain, suffering, rejection, and isolation were simply are part of life to not only accept, but to expect. A stoic would expect that these negative things would happen, and work through them anyway. The Marcus Aurelius quote which starts this article hits the nail on the head: the best way out of a problem is through it.
As you can imagine, introducing these kinds of paradoxical strategies in a therapeutic setting is likely to be an invitation for client resistance. Fighting through this resistance is the reason why therapists often refer to interventions that they suggest to clients as “doing the work.” Paradoxical intention is an invitation for a client to admit their fears and anxieties and “do it anyway.” The therapy often involves breaking down the challenge into manageable, smaller, mini challenges, designed to build the client’s tolerance and confidence. The beauty of this type of intervention is that any exposure to that which is feared is viewed as a success, regardless of the outcome. Therapist and client celebrate rejection, refusal, and exposure to stressful events because the goal is to go through, rather than around, the problem. This has the exact opposite effect from what a client would expect. “I asked her out and she said no,” or “I interviewed for the job and got rejected” become the small, painful events that a client learns to tolerate, be comfortable with, and sometimes even to expect.
In challenging a client to take on this strategy, I often use a quote from cognitive behavioral theorist Albert Ellis: “What’s the worst that can happen?” We begin to explore, in the safety of the counseling room, the feared event with the intention of taking that fear and exploring it in the real world. Follow up, Ellis stolen questions such as, “Would that be so terrible? How do you know? Do you really think that you would die? Would you ever get over it?” and so on, often give the client a glimpse into how unrealistic their fears truly are. The goal then becomes to get out there and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
This strategy was used by a company whose revenue was based on cold sales calls. Salesman make cold calls daily and were expected to make as many calls per day as possible.. Trainers of the phone sales persons used the paradoxical intention as a way of getting the sales personnel comfortable with being rejected. New salesman were encouraged to get as many rejections as possible each day and were initially given a bonus for calls that resulted in a sale, as well as a smaller bonus for the number of rejections that they received. Statements such as, “I didn’t make any sales today, but I got 47 rejections!,” became a reason to celebrate. Over time, employees who had this training became the most adept at making these dreaded cold calls.
The strategy of the paradoxical intention works extremely well because it allows a client to personally experience something that would otherwise be hard to understand unless they had gone through it. I once saw an interview with Gene Simmons, bass guitarist for the rock band Kiss. Simmons, who admits to not being very good-looking, was asked by the interviewer why he was so successful with so many women. You would have guessed that he would’ve said something to the effect that it was “Because I’m a rockstar,” but that wasn’t his answer. He said that “It’s because I have no fear of being rejected. I just move on to the next woman.” He went on to explain that “It’s simple mathematics. There’s gotta be at least 5% of women in the world would go out with anybody, regardless of how they looked. I’m just willing to ask those 100 in order to be accepted by those 5.” While Gene is certainly no Victor Frankl, he is certainly onto something here.
There are some basic principles at play here:
⦁ Stoic philosophy can be useful to create behavioral change. Sometimes, the best way around an obstacle is straight through it.
⦁ When it comes to human behavior, Frankl’s idea of the paradoxical intention works as well as paradoxical medical interventions such as inoculations. Overcoming a little bit of emotional stress does, in fact, make one stronger, more capable, and more resilient. Human resiliency can only be developed through experience.
⦁ The meaning we attach to life events is more important than the event’s themselves. It’s not what happens to us, as much as it is the meaning and significance we attach to what happens to us.
⦁ Rejection is only truly a rejection if a person accepts it as such. Remember those salesman with the phone calls and Gene Simmons’ logic. Simple math, the more rejections I get, the closer I am to success.
⦁ When life becomes overwhelming, learn to ask yourself the tough questions. “What’s the worst that could happen?” “Would that be so terrible?” “Would it kill me?” Don’t catastrophize, project, or magnify events. Attaching a better personal meaning to the stories that we tell ourselves can radically change your world.
⦁ The Buddhist philosophy that life is painful, but suffering is optional, is worth considering frequently. Victor Frankl’s life story bears witness to this fact.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston S. Churchill
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