Strategies for Staying Sane: Using Paradoxical Techniques

Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus

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Clay was at his wit’s end. His mother-in-law often offered him free and unwelcome advice in the form of personal attacks. He went toe-to-toe with her once or twice, but this only aggravated matters. “What can I do to get this woman off my back?” he asked. When Clay learned about paradoxical techniques, this soon put an end to his mother-in-law’s forays.

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One of the greatest discoveries in psychology is the fact that:

  • you can often correct or change behaviors, thoughts, or feelings for the better by trying to make them worse.

Instead of responding negativelyto destructiveness or irrationality (“Stop it, that’s enough! We don’t like it!”), positiveresponses are provided. (“That’s marvelous, why don’t you do more?”).

The point is illustrated by the case of a five-year-old girl who incessantly sucked her thumb. Her parents were able to eliminate the habit by urging her to suck her thumb more and more, and by insisting that she not take it out of her mouth. Dr. Knight Dunlap was one of the first psychologists who reported curing individuals of a variety of undesirable habits (such as nail biting, tics and stuttering) by having them deliberately increase the habits. In professional lingo this is called “negative practice.”

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Also the famous psychiatrist Dr. Victor Frankl, began using a technique he called “paradoxical intention” (deliberately trying to do something you really want not to do), which helped people control a variety of problems.

Here’s a simple clinical example. Liz, who was dating Marty, persistently inquired “Do you love me?” He reassured her and said so many times. But this did not stop her from repeatedly seeking his reassurance which was upsetting and irritating him. Finally, one day, when Liz asked (for the millionth time) “Do you love me?” Marty said: “No, I hate you. I only stick around to torture you.”

“Reverse psychology,” used appropriately, puts an end to the silly games and arbitrary tests that people impose on one another.

One of our colleagues is a true expert at using paradox. Recently, at a party, when he publicly espoused an unpopular point of view, someone turned to him and said, “You really are a stupid fool!” Instead of taking offense, he replied “I know. I am colossally stupid. My level of stupidity is off the scale. What can I do about it?” The man who insulted him was speechless and everyone else laughed and found it funny.

What is the difference between “paradoxical communications” and “sarcasm”? Sarcasm is hostility disguised as humor. It is intended to hurt, and is often bitter and caustic. Paradoxical statements are usually in response to someone’s unhelpful remarks or behaviors, and the intent is to unravel and clarify the issue by magnifying its absurdities. Sarcastic statements are expressed in a cutting manner; paradoxical remarks are delivered with humor.

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Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus is a licensed psychologist, Co-founder and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute. In addition to his general psychotherapy practice, Dr. Clifford Lazarus specializes in health and neuropsychology.

Dr. Clifford Lazarus received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University where he was a Henry Rutgers Research Scholar.  Seen here are excerpts from one of his books, The 60-Second Shrink – 101 Strategies For Staying Sane In a Crazy World, a book, he co-authored with his father “One of the ten most influential psychotherapists in America”  Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D.  For more details on Dr. Clifford Lazarus visit this link to The Lazarus Institute.  Or visit his page here on friendlysuggestions.com.

Books available at Amazon by Arnold and Clifford Lazarus

Direct links to two highly recommended books by Dr. Clifford Lazarus & Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus:

The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World 

Don’t Believe It for a Minute!: Forty Toxic Ideas That Are Driving You Crazy

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