The paradox of intention 4

For the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl healing and the fulfillment of the self came not through the strenuous attempts by the patient to take direct action to do so but rather through finding a sense of meaning or value outside the self. He wrote:

‘If we succeed in bringing the patient to the point where he ceases to flee from or fight his symptoms … then we may observe that the symptoms diminish and that the patient is no longer haunted by them’.

In other words, if we preoccupy ourselves with the pursuit of happiness or trying to find peace of mind the less chance there is that we can attain it. Incidentally, here Carl Jung would have pointed to the obvious, that there is then anyway an imbalance if consciously we are endlessly pursuing one aim, and that inevitably this would be compensated for through the unconscious.

For Frankl goodness can anyway only be a side effect of taking action which takes us out of ourselves otherwise we are merely serving our own egotism. His particular focus was though on the search for meaning which can only be found outside our desire for self-satisfaction; meaning is found in relation and commitment to something outside the self, and so self-preoccupation therefore must frustrate the will to meaning. One of the ways that he thought we find meaning is the stand we take towards suffering. [Here we remember that Frankl’s views about this grew out of his experiences of surviving in a concentration camp during the holocaust]. Our attention to physical and emotional satisfactions alone leads to the phenomenon of ‘despair despite success’, but if we can find meaning even in the most hopeless and painful situations we may find ‘fulfillment despite failure’.

In his therapeutic work Frankl used the paradox of intention so understanding that the more one fights symptoms such as fear of panic attacks, or acting oddly or coping with obsessions the stronger the feedback; so the problem becomes one of excessive intention, where in trying to avoid the fear or control the compulsion the effort becomes counterproductive and simply intensifying the problems. He also wrote about the hyperintention of pleasure found in sexual neurosis where the more the person tries to demonstrate their potency or their ability to achieve an orgasm, the less they are able to succeed: ‘Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.’

The treatment for hyperintention is to use paradoxical intention where the person is encouraged to do, or to wish to happen, the very thing that they fear. The inversion of intention in the case of a phobia removes the fear of fear, so that for example the fear of sweating in public is replaced by the wish to do so – the vicious circle is broken and the feedback mechanism is removed. … The person is encouraged to say: ‘I sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour out at least ten quarts!’

The fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish and all the emotional energy previous put into anticipatory anxiety has gone. The symptom of anxiety is accepted as part of oneself and what is feared is accepted.