Tag Archives: Overcorrection

Paradoxical Intention, Part II: Transformative Epiphanies

Often, I have the honor of getting a personal preview of Rita S-F’s Godblogs. I sit in a cushy chair, shut my eyes, and let her words create images in my brain. It’s not unusual for her readings to stimulate unusual thoughts. But, last week, while listening, I was taken with a particular epiphany.

She was reading about how easy (and destructive) it is to be judgmental; I can’t recall the details. In response, a voice in my head spoke gently,

“I wonder if it might help if you could try, just a little, to be even more judgmental. . .” followed by an additional internal commentary “. . . said no one ever.”

The thought—of trying to be even more judgmental—made my lips curl upward into a smile. I felt an urge to laugh. Then, naturally, I thought of Viktor Frankl.

As I wrote in my last blog (https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2021/12/06/paradoxical-intention-dont-try-this-at-home-or-maybe-dont-try-it-anywhere/), Frankl was the first person I know of who explicitly discussed paradoxical intention as working like a joke to the psyche. I’ve written about that, but I’d never felt it in my gut. This time I did actually feel it. Then, and in response to the thought of intending to be “even more judgmental,” along with the urge to laugh, I also felt a small internal push back toward acceptance.  

Paradoxical intention has two parts. First, there’s the intention. I’ve tried the intention part of paradoxical intention with myself (and used it with clients) in specific situations when physical behaviors or responses feel outside of voluntary control. One example is the twitching eye syndrome. If you have an eye that’s prone to twitching, you can try to make it twitch more or try to make it twitch when it hasn’t been twitching. That’s the intention part. The other part is for the intention to be aimed toward the opposite of your goal. In the case of listening to Rita’s blog, the thought of intending to be more judgmental was received and then produced psychological push-back. What was different than any other response I’ve ever felt about paradoxical intention was my urge to smile and laugh. I’d never felt like laughing when I tried to make a bothersome eye twitch . . . twitch more.

Later—while driving I-90 west—a place where I’m prone to feeling intermittent anger toward drivers I label in my mind as “stupid,” I did another experiment.

“I wonder,” I thought to myself, “if maybe I could try to start feeling just a little angrier toward those other drivers. Being alone in the car, I tried it out with a brief litany of profanity. In response, I felt increased anger. That wasn’t good. But within seconds, my brain started the natural push-back. I took note of my greater anger and quickly judged it as unpleasant. Then, I noticed an internal psychological push-back toward the center. I suddenly wanted the anger—which usually feels so justified in the moment—to go away. And so, I let it go.

Paradoxical intention isn’t a magic trick. Nothing in the world of human psychology is magical. Paradoxical intention operates on natural psychological dynamics. Laura and Fritz Perls would have called it an internal polarity. Behaviorists like to call it a form of overcorrection. The popular press tends to reduce it to a term I can’t help but find offensive: reverse psychology.

Although you might try paradoxical intention on your children or your friends, because of one central underlying principle, that’s not a great idea. The underlying principle is best expressed by an old (and bad) joke.

“How many mental health professionals does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Only one. But the light bulb has to want to change.”

You could try a little paradoxical intention . . . on yourself . . . but only if you want to experience a new transformative epiphany.