Paradoxical Intention: Don’t Try This at Home (or maybe don’t try it anywhere)

People want change.

People don’t want change.

As W. R. Miller noted in his treatise on motivational interviewing (MI), ambivalence is nearly always the order of the day. Most people, most of the time, would like to be better and healthier versions of themselves. And, most people, most of the time, resist becoming better and healthier versions of themselves.  Who knew?

Alfred Adler may have been the first modern psychotherapist to write from a non-psychoanalytic perspective about how to work with individuals not interested in changing. What follows is a complex quote from Adler. He’s writing about how to work with a patient who is depressed, but not motivated or willing to change. You may need to read this excerpt several times to track it and appreciate Adler’s method. You may see all those words below and not want to put in the effort. That’s okay. You can stop reading now if you don’t want to gather in the nuance sprinkled into Adler’s indirect suggestion.

After establishing a sympathetic relation, I give suggestions for a change of conduct in two stages. In the first stage my suggestion is “Only do what is agreeable to you.” The patient usually answers, “Nothing is agreeable.” “Then at least,” I respond, “do not exert yourself to do what is disagreeable.” The patient, who has usually been exhorted to do various uncongenial things to remedy this condition, finds a rather flattering novelty in my advice, and may improve in behavior. Later I insinuate the second rule of conduct, saying that “It is much more difficult and I do not know if you can follow it.” After saying this I am silent, and look doubtfully at the patient. In this way I excite his [her/their] curiosity and ensure his attention, and then proceed, “If you could follow this second rule you would be cured in fourteen days. It is—to consider from time to time how you can give another person pleasure. It would very soon enable you to sleep and would chase away all your sad thoughts. You would feel yourself to be useful and worthwhile.”

I receive various replies to my suggestion, but every patient thinks it is too difficult to act upon. If the answer is, “How can I give pleasure to others when I have none myself?” I relieve the prospect by saying, “Then you will need four weeks.” The more transparent response, “Who gives me pleasure?” I counter with what is probably the strongest move in the game, by saying, “Perhaps you had better train yourself a little thus: do not actually do anything to please anyone else, but just think about how you could do it!” (Adler, 1964a, pp. 25–26)

Similar to Adler, Viktor Frankl also wrote about using “anti-suggestion” or paradox. Frankl was keen on this method as a means for treating anxiety, compulsions, and physical symptoms. An excerpt from our theories textbook describing Frankl’s paradoxical intention follows.

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Paradoxical Intention

. . . In a case example, Frankl discussed using paradox with a bookkeeper who was suffering from chronic writer’s cramp. The man had seen many physicians without improvement; he was in danger of losing his job. Frankl’s approach was to instruct the man to:

Do just the opposite from what he usually had done; namely, instead of trying to write as neatly and legibly as possible, to write with the worst possible scrawl. He was advised to say to himself, “now I will show people what a good scribbler I am!” And at that moment in which he deliberately tried to scribble, he was unable to do so. “I tried to scrawl but simply could not do it,” he said the next day. Within forty-eight hours the patient was in this way freed from his writer’s cramp, and remained free for the observation period after he had been treated. He is a happy man again and fully able to work. (Frankl, 1967, p. 4)

Frankl attributed the success of paradox, in part, to humor. He claimed that paradox allows individuals to place distance between themselves and their situation. New (humorous) perspectives allow clients to let go of symptoms. Frankl considered paradoxically facilitated attitude changes to represent deep and not superficial change.

Given that Frankl emphasized humor as the therapeutic mechanism underlying paradoxical intention, it fits that he would use a joke to explain how paradoxical intention works,

The basic mechanism underlying the technique…perhaps can best be illustrated by a joke which was told to me some years ago: A boy who came to school late excused himself to the teacher on the grounds that the icy streets were so slippery that whenever he moved one step forward he slipped two steps back again. Thereupon the teacher retorted, “Now I have caught you in a lie—if this were true, how did you ever get to school?” Whereupon the boy calmly replied, “I finally turned around and went home!” (Frankl, 1967, pp. 4–5)

Frankl believed paradoxical intention was especially effective for anxiety, compulsions, and physical symptoms. He reported on numerous cases, similar to the man with writer’s cramp, in which a nearly instantaneous cure resulted from the intervention. In addition to ascribing the cure to humor and distancing from the symptom, Frankl emphasized that paradox teaches clients to intentionally exaggerate, rather than avoid, their existential realities.

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I’m writing about paradoxical intention today because of an inspiration from Rita’s blog yesterday. There’s so much ostensible hate, judgment, and certainty in contemporary discourse. That got me thinking about whether a paradoxical approach might be timely and effective. Yesterday, I tried it on myself. Stay tuned, in my next post, I’ll write about how a little paradox worked out for me, and how it might help shift some of the lamentable, polarized arguments happening all around us.  

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