What if you took all of the pressure off of yourself?
What if instead of trying to do well, you just lowered the bar and aimed for a “C-“?
What if instead of trying to be perfect, you aimed for mediocre?
Sure, it sounds weird enough, in our society driven by performance and personal success… but isn’t it kind of a relief to think about? Doesn’t it feel like a weight lifted off your shoulders?
“Paradoxical Intention” is a term I specifically picked up from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (at the end of the book, when he describes some of his therapeutic techniques).
In it, Frankl gives some examples of “paradoxical intention” at play.
For example, he retells the story of a certain man with a stutter that had been with him as long as he could remember – except, that is, for one time:
As a twelve year-old, this guy once tried to hitch a ride on a streetcar, but was eventually caught by the conductor.
In an attempt to “elicit sympathy,” he tried to “demonstrate that he was just a poor stuttering boy.”
And that was the one time in his life he couldn’t stutter.
Or there’s another example, in the book, of a patient with a fear of excessive sweating around people – and, sure enough, his anticipatory anxiety caused him to sweat a lot.
Frankl advised him to “resolve deliberately to show people how much he could sweat.”
The man would say to himself something like, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!”
That one tip relieved all the pressure he had put on himself. After a single session, his ten-year phobia was gone.
There’s even an a story of a man with “incurably” awful handwriting, advised to write with the “worst possible scrawl” – who suddenly found it difficult to write with messy handwriting.
So what’s paradoxical intention? In a nutshell, it’s Viktor Frankl’s psychiatric technique to invite the patient to “intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears.”
This creates a “reversal of the patient’s attitude” to “ridicule [those fears] by dealing with them in an ironical way.”
In that respect, and with a little bit of a sense of humor – the “wind is taken out of the sails of the anxiety.”
I personally have dealt with anxiety for the majority of my life – putting immense internal pressure on myself to achieve extremely well in school, and applying the same type of internal stress on myself regarding career success and achievement.
But, in an example of paradoxical intention, I noticed something not too long ago.
During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, when people weren’t supposed to be achieving, you were supposed to just stay home – those particular anxieties were completely gone.
Sure, it was an enormously difficult time in many other ways – as a country, as a world, we were trying to survive, to look after loved ones, particularly those with compromised immunities. But it was collectively, socially, okay to experience negative emotions, to stay home, to just “survive” and not “accomplish.”
And because of that, my lifelong “high-achiever” anxieties — this particular brand of negative emotion — vanished.
You know, maybe we’re all putting too much pressure on ourselves – whether it’s to perform well (in any field), or to achieve amazing things in our careers, or get to sleep right now at night….or to not sweat so much in front of others, or to write perfectly….
Maybe we could all benefit from some paradoxical intention.
Perhaps instead of trying to do a perfect job, we should just try to do…I don’t know…worse. What a relief that might be to those of us with type-A personalities, to lower the bar a bit.
And who knows, maybe, with that stress off our backs, we might just accidentally end up doing a better job.
I think we’ll certainly be happier for it.
So usually I’d send you off by wishing you good luck and success, but maybe today I’ll just say:
Lower the bar on yourself, and have fun.