The Power of Paradoxical Thinking: The Implications of Paradoxical Thinking (Part 2 of 2)

By: James P. Krehbiel

In Part 1, I discussed a different way of viewing problems called paradoxical thinking. The power of paradox involves doing the opposite of what may be considered a natural reaction to events. This is called the law of reverse effort. Many people do not understand paradoxical thinking and consequently end up behaving in ways that appear reasonable but are actually self-defeating.

How we think about issues determines the kinds of assumptions that we make, and affects our behavior for better or for worse. Paradoxical thinking turns our normal manner of viewing problems upside-down. Common sense may seem to be discounted as we reflect on choices and behaviors that impact our life.

How does paradoxical thinking affect our everyday manner of behaving? William Glasser, noted psychiatrist, tells his audiences of teachers that they need to radically alter their thinking if what they are doing with children is not working. "Don't stay stuck in worn out patterns of behaving, try a totally different approach to what you are doing," he asserts. This is the very nature of paradoxical thinking.

Consider the mother who was overindulged as a child. Does she continue to over-function as a parent to her own child or is she aware of the need to let go, thus permitting her child to learn to develop a sense of independence? Often, doing the opposite of the way in which you were parented is beneficial to the child. I call this redeeming the intergenerational cycle of dysfunction.

How does paradoxical thinking affect those who suffer from anxiety? Highly anxious people tend to fight with their symptoms. They become "anxious over their anxiety." They browbeat themselves for what they perceive as defective thinking and behavior. Their pattern of self-blame only exacerbates the symptoms and a cycle of self-defeating behavior ensues. The goal of paradoxical thinking is to teach the anxious individual how to accept and embrace their symptoms. This involves teaching them that most people suffer from anxiety and that having anxiety is not abnormal. Trying to get rid of one's symptoms only causes them to rear their ugly head. Paradoxically, making friends with one's symptoms will minimize their impact.

Another idea associated with paradoxical thinking involves the concept of surrender. This means learning to let go rather than fighting or giving up on oneself. This notion is applicable to those seeking addictions treatment as well as individuals with anger management problems. In AA groups, the idea of surrendering to a Higher Power is a foundation for healing. Letting go, rather than fighting with the problem allows a community of supporters to assist the recovering addict and creates the conditions for the addict to share his addiction history and emotional concerns with those in recovery. Surrendering promotes a sense of needed humility.

Those who are affected by anger management issues embrace several basic assumptions about life that run counter to paradoxical thinking. Those who rage believe, "I must be in control of all situations, circumstances and events governing my life; if I'm not allowed control of every situation it would be awful and somebody is going to pay!" Second, those who inflict rage believe, "People must always be the way I want them to be or else I will make their life miserable." Paradoxically, people who fight to stay in control invariably feel out of control. Those who manifest rage and anger are unable to maintain control at all times. Due to the unpredictable nature of life, the perpetrator of violence is doomed because he is unable to control all aspects of his environment. Such vulnerability is translated into abusive behavior. Paradoxically, the healthiest individuals tend to be those who are able to experience the confidence of control and yet can accept their vulnerability as an asset rather than a liability.

Paradoxically, those who try to fix their partner in a relationship end up pushing their loved one away. Pursuers continue to over-function in a relationship because it keeps them from having to focus on their own issues. In the process of trying to control their partner, they end up driving them away. An example is the husband who needlessly checks on the whereabouts of his wife due to his insecurity and jealousy. He may check cell phone bills or computer sites to make sure she is not connecting with another man. He may continuously over-play his affection through gifts and love notes. His over-anxious pursuing may be interpreted by his wife as a sign of weakness and may create resentment. Anxiety intensifies the cycle of pursuing, creates more polarity and the problem intensifies. The pursuer tries to fix others but paradoxically is unable to understand the nature of his personal problems. Caretaking is done at the expense of his own emotional well-being. A sense of emptiness, filled with confusion, hopelessness and paranoia may be the central theme for the pursuer. Teaching the pursuer to distance in a relationship is a wise use of a therapist's time. Paradoxically, the therapist must make a list of the ways that the wife uses to distance and teach the husband to change his style of relating. The distancing wife will invariably view this approach to treatment with a sigh of relief!

On occasion, a therapist may use what are considered to be paradoxical techniques as a way of altering the behavior of a family system. Cloe' Madanes, in her strategic family therapy work, gives an example of a model of paradoxical treatment. She offers the example of a child who displays a pattern of pyromania. All efforts, including fire education and prior therapy prove fruitless. Mandanes views the child's behavior as a metaphor regarding the lack of bonding between the mother and child. She prescribes to the mother and child that they spend thirty minutes a day for a week doing controlled "experiments" which involve the use of striking matches with various materials. The other children in the family are not invited to be a part of the ritual. This compliance-based directive diffuses the fire-setting and creates the needed bond between the mother and child.

Paradoxical thinking and behavior involves "going against the grain" of what would normally be considered a common sense approach to solving problems. It might seem common sense to give your child a lecture on the value of getting a college education during a time when he lacks motivation. However, asking the child probing questions about the quality of his education and what he believes his future will look like empowers the child and gives him a sense of ownership regarding his future. This is the nature of paradoxical thinking.

Paradoxical thinking involves a paradigm shift in how we perceive ways of thinking and behaving. It calls for a more "open" and flexible way of creating a worldview. It leads to a more effortless and simplistic manner of solving life's problems.

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC is an author, freelance writer and cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at

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