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What Is Paradoxical Intention?

By Ray Hawk
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Paradoxical intention is a treatment approach in psychotherapy conceived by Victor Frankl, a famous Austrian neurologist who survived incarceration in Nazi concentration camps during World War II and went on to become a world-renowned psychiatrist. Frankl's approach to overcoming neurotic thought or habits is to suggest that the patient experiencing such conditions immerse himself or herself in the source of the fear. By confronting it directly on a conscious level, it is believed that the neurotic habit can be more easily seen and avoided in the future. Such a treatment in paradoxical intention is part of Frankl's broader approach to mental treatments that has come to be known as logotherapy. Logotheraphy focuses on the search for meaning in one's life, where this is believed to be the dominant force that shapes life and makes it possible for individuals to rise above their fears and perceived limitations.

A fundamental premise of the idea of paradoxical intention is that the psychodynamics of how an individual copes with unsolvable problems creates a state where the problem is likely to be perpetuated indefinitely. This is because coping mechanisms promote mental adaptation to the conditions of the problem instead of promoting change to avoid it. By looking at the opposite of what one would normally do or feel in a given situation, revelation about current behavior can be obtained.

An example would be someone who consistently overeats, but mentally avoids the reality that he or she actually does so by not focusing consciously on food, which creates a latent sense of deprivation and anxiety towards food in the mind. Paradoxical intention would instruct such an individual to think purposely about eating as much as possible and to eat everything that he or she can that has the least amount of appeal. This can create a revelatory sense of awareness and repulsion in the mind as to the behavior, which is the first step on the road to defeating it.

The use of paradoxical intention is occasionally compared to a thought experiment in philosophy known as Kavka's toxin puzzle, named after Gregory Kavka, a US philosopher who invented the idea in 1983. The toxin puzzle basically states that, if a person is to make a solid mental commitment to perform an act on which he or she knows in reality will not be followed through, he or she must create an irrational state of mind. Overcoming debilitating practices, therefore, requires that individuals entertain what are currently perceived to be irrational thoughts, and a commitment to carry out actions based upon them, in order to force themselves to see reality in a new light and initiate change.

From Frankl's point of view, however, paradoxical intention and logotherapy were not intended to free people from suffering. Instead, Frankl defined all pathological behavior as habits and conditions that deprived individuals of meaning in their lives. By encouraging people to face their fears, his form of psychotherapy opens up new possibilities for existence and a broader understanding of reality that can bring greater purpose to life, though it may also eventually bring further suffering in the process.

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Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Mar 09, 2014

@literally45-- If someone has a fear of failing, he should intentionally fail, over and over again until he no longer fears it.

Paradoxical intention means doing what we don't want to do. So if we don't want to worry but worry compulsively, we should try to worry even more. If we don't want to clean all the time, we should try to clean even more. The idea is to purposefully do what we don't want to do until we break out of the cycle.

We can all try paradoxical intention in our lives. In some cases though, it might be better to try it with the help of a therapist.

By literally45 — On Mar 09, 2014

@fBoyle-- You might want to talk to an expert about paradoxical intention techniques. As far as I understand, the technique is about taking on a fear. So I'm quite sure that it can be applied to most types of fear. Just the way it is done may differ.

For example, let's say someone is suffering from insomnia and has a fear of not being able to fall asleep. If this person were to use the paradoxical intention technique, he or she would intentionally stay awake instead of trying to sleep. The problem is basically aggravated so that the tension and anxiety of the subject goes away.

I think I understand what you mean though because what if someone's fears are more general? What is someone is afraid of failing for example? How would paradoxical intention be used in this case? I'm not too sure.

By fBoyle — On Mar 08, 2014

I'm not sure if I understand paradoxical intention therapy. It sounds like this type of therapy may not be possible or effective for every type of psychological problem. The example about the person who overeats makes sense. But what about other problems?

By Markerrag — On Mar 06, 2014

This approach to dealing with that which frightens us is so ingrained in popular culture that it is logical to assume that most people don't realize that this concept came from a psychotherapist and is based on years of study and experimentation. It is almost common wisdom, at this point, to deal with a phobia by facing it head on until it is no longer frightening. That fact, alone, suggests this form of therapy has met with considerable success.

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