ALL YOU NEED IS A SENSE OF HUMOUR
“The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to a cure.”
- Gordon W. Allport
Having a sense of humour means you can laugh and find amusement in things. The things that people find funny is as unique to them as their fingerprints. Some people like the things in the New Yorker. Some like the things on silly Instagram accounts like ‘Texts from Last Night.’ Some like watching a thirty-something-year-old man drag his nutsack across another man’s drum set before they engage in an all-out brawl in their parent’s house. That last one is one of my favourite movie scenes ever made.
Some people can laugh at and ridicule themselves. These people may have stumbled on the Achille’s heel of a lot of anxiety and mental distress. Dr. Viktor Frankl – an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and holocaust survivor who wrote the best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning – believed a sense of humour can be used to quash the mental distress associated with anticipatory anxiety and hyper intention. He called the technique paradoxical intention. It was one aspect of Dr. Frankl’s larger therapeutic doctrine, logotherapy, which he describes in the book following his autobiographical account of the holocaust.
Anticipatory anxiety and hyper intention are the yin and yang of intention. Anticipatory anxiety arises out of fear. When you fear something, you make it more likely to occur. “An individual, for example, who is afraid of blushing when he enters a large room and faces many people will actually be more prone to blush under these circumstances,” says Frankl. “The fear is mother of the event.”
Hyper intention is the antithesis of anticipatory anxiety. It’s the opposite side of the same coin. While anticipatory anxiety brings about what you fear, hyper intention makes impossible what you want. Frankl argues that certain things – like happiness, success, and love, among others – must always be a side-effect or by-product. The more they are targeted as goals in themselves, the less likely they are to be realized.
To use paradoxical intention in a situation that creates anticipatory anxiety, attempt to bring about exactly what you are afraid of. Set the intention by making a statement. Wish for what you fear. You can say it out loud, it can be inaudible, or you can write it down.
If you’re worried about blushing in a room full of people, say to yourself before you walk in, “I’m going to blush more than anyone has blushed before.” If you stutter and trip over your words in front of crowds, wish to stutter more than you’ve ever stuttered before. If you fear failure, try to fail.
For hyper intention, paradoxical intention works by giving up striving for what you desire. You’ve likely experienced this before. As soon as you give up on something, that’s when you get it. When you get so frustrated with dating, that’s when you find the person you’re meant to be with. When you give up on trying to make people like you, suddenly people become drawn to you. When you stop trying to impress your boss, they begin to notice your good work. Paradoxical intention is the conscious application of this principle.
Paradoxical intention is elegantly simple. Yet its simplicity does not undermine its effectiveness. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl provides several examples of the technique working in his practice. He describes a woman being able to overcome sexual anxiety after a childhood tainted by sexual abuse; a young physician using paradoxical intention to control excessive sweating in social situations; a bookkeeper beating a writer’s cramp that threatened his job; and a child who inadvertently stops stuttering using the principles of Frankl’s technique.
The quote that precedes this article was written by Gordon W. Allport, an American psychologist who spent nearly his entire academic career as Harvard faculty. He was ranked as the 11th most cited psychologist between 1901 and 2000, making him one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Frankl’s paradoxical intention is the “empirical validation and clinical application of Allport’s statement.”
Perhaps the key to living a life that is less stressful is being able to take yourself a little less seriously.