The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.Gordon W. Allport, The Individual and His Religion
Austrian psychiatrist, philosopher, and author Viktor Frankl spent four years in different concentration camps during the second world war. From the ashes of his horrific experiences during his imprisonment arose a school of psychotherapy called logotherapy. Logotherapy aims to help people find personal meaning in their lives, assuming that meaning is what ultimately keeps us going.
Working as a psychiatrist, Frankl experienced patients who suffered from neuroses (as he described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning). One of his patients was a young physician who feared sweating profusely in the company of other people. But his fear of sweating made him even more fearful, which only made him sweat more. Frankl, then, used a pretty unconventional method that ultimately cured his patient: “paradoxical intention.”
Paradoxical intention is one of the techniques found in logotherapy. Therapists can use paradoxical intention to treat people with anxiety, fear, phobias, and even insomnia. Instead of escaping or minimizing the fear, paradoxical intention encourages us to face it head-on and actually desire and wish for it as a means of conquering it (how strange this may sound). But this reverse psychology that tricks the mind out of its neurosis makes Frankl’s approach interesting and worth examining. This piece explores the ideas behind this technique and how it works.
The vicious circle of anticipatory fear
It’s not surprising that people tend to avoid situations that evoke fear in them. We generally experience fear as deeply unpleasant, often more so than the situations that produce it. But according to Frankl, this “flight from fear” is “the starting point of any anxiety neurosis.” The very endeavor of avoiding fear ironically strengthens it.
As soon as we fear the fear, we tumble down a rabbit hole of never-ending dread. In the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, author Mark Manson describes what he called the “feedback loop from hell.”
There’s an insidious quirk to your brain that, if you let it, can drive you absolutely batty. Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: You get anxious about confronting somebody in your life. That anxiety cripples you and you start wondering why you’re so anxious. Now you’re becoming anxious about being anxious. Oh no! Doubly anxious! Now you’re anxious about your anxiety, which is causing more anxiety. Quick, where’s the whiskey?Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (retrieved ‘The Feedback Loop From Hell’ published at markmanson.net)
Viktor Frankl argued that even though someone who has a phobia tends to “flight from fear,” as in avoiding the situations that usually evoke fear, there’s also an element of “fighting against fear” involved. So, the sufferer tries to remove the fear forcefully.
A prevalent example we often see nowadays is social anxiety. When we experience the discomfort of fear (or even a panic attack) when giving a presentation, for example, we likely try to avoid it in the future. We can avoid it by refraining from giving presentations altogether until we die. But when that isn’t an option, we will have to face fear nevertheless. So, how do we deal with this?
First, we try to reason ourselves out of it. If we use common sense, we can intellectually comprehend that most social situations are not life-threatening. There’s generally nothing to fear when giving a presentation unless, perhaps, we’re doing it in front of an audience carrying guns that they’ll use to shoot us when we fail.
But despite our rational understanding, the prospect of these situations still evokes fear. It’s a fear that we cannot seem to subdue with sheer effort or thought. Frankl called this “anticipatory anxiety.” When we experience anticipatory anxiety, we fear a specific outcome. In this case, it’s not the situation itself (which is pretty harmless); it’s the uncontrollable, absurd, and, first and foremost, unwanted fear it evokes.
After an employee who fears public speaking hears that she needs to give a presentation in front of her colleagues, she experiences anticipatory anxiety (5). Just like the sweating physician, she wants to prevent her anxiety from arising, as she dreads the idea of trembling and stammering nervously in front of her coworkers. But the more she fights the fear, the more it seems to persist.
Herein lies the problem. As we become overly invested in stopping the anxiety, we fight fire with fire. We produce the exact thing we try to eliminate. As most people who’ve experienced this probably know: fighting fear doesn’t work. Even worse, the symptoms (including trembling, dizziness, or a racing heart) only increase if we try.
In his book The Unheard Cry for Meaning, Psychotherapy, and Humanism, Frankl explains that “fighting the fear” simply adds pressure to the already existing pressure. As we can see in this diagram, and as Frankl explains it: “pressure induces counterpressure, and counterpressure, in turn, increases pressure. Again, we are confronted with a vicious circle.”
The question is, of course: how can we break this cycle?
Anticipatory anxiety results from hyper-intention. Hyper-intention is an excessive focus on achieving (or preventing) a particular outcome.
An example of hyper-intention at play is suffering from insomnia. The initial problem – the inability to fall asleep – is strengthened by a strong intention to fall asleep that follows. But the more the insomniac uses willpower to fall asleep, the worse his sleeping problems get, and the more hyper-focused he becomes. Now, the inability to sleep has become this huge thing, and the sufferer may feel that it’s destroying his life.
To escape this cycle, Frankl proposed a paradox. Now, what’s a paradox? A fitting Merriam-Webster definition of a paradox goes as follows: “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.” Of course, we want to get rid of anxiety in social situations, and we surely want to have a good night’s sleep. It’s common sense. But in this wanting also lies the problem: it makes us anxious and tense. So could the key to solving this problem be to instead of wanting these things, paradoxically wanting the opposite?
Paradoxical intention replaces the object of our desire with a statement that seems contradictory. Instead of wanting to get rid of fear, we decide that we want fear. Instead of wishing to fall asleep, we decide that we wish to stay awake as long as possible. So, we completely turn the story around using a paradox, as we now wish for what we previously feared. Let’s take a look at how this works, according to Frankl’s experience with the sweating physician.
A bit of anticipatory anxiety was enough for this young man to evoke excessive sweating. So, Frankl advised him to deliberately show people how much he could sweat in situations that would arouse his fear. Every time he met someone that triggered his sweating, he would say to himself: “I only sweated out a quart before, now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!” After a single session, he freed himself permanently from his phobia within a week.
Paradoxical intention is essentially a way to trick oneself by replacing the object of our desire with a statement that seems contradictory to common sense. But for most people, it’s probably challenging to engage in paradoxical behavior, as it seems an absurd thing to do. Why would anyone wish to sweat excessively? Why would anyone want to be stuttering and shaking in front of people?
Frankl clarifies that this method requires us to use our “human capacity for self-detachment inherent in a sense of humor.” So, we must be able not to take ourselves so seriously. To do this, we must detach and put ourselves at a distance from our neuroses and be willing to laugh at them. And we must be ready to make a fool out of ourselves as well, which is probably the most challenging part of it all. But if it works, why not give it a try?
(…) as soon as the patient stops fighting his obsessions and instead tries to ridicule them by dealing with them in an ironical way—by applying paradoxical intention—the vicious circle is cut, the symptom diminishes and finally atrophies. In the fortunate case where there is no existential vacuum which invites and elicits the symptom, the patient will not only succeed in ridiculing his neurotic fear but finally will succeed in completely ignoring it.Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Logotherapy in a Nutshell
So, fight your fear, and you’ll be stuck with it. Wish for what you fear, and you’ll conquer it.
Thank you for watching.