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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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