Easy Does It

   Last night I went to bed early, because this morning I had a lot of work to do. I did everything right: set my alarm clock, read a relaxing book, and turned off the lights at 10 PM sharp. About two hours later I woke up, wide awake. I was concerned about not being able to work today, so I kept on reading my book, but it did not make me sleepy. I tried watching TV (which I usually find boring) but found an entertaining late-night show. Once it was over I turned everything off  and shut my eyes, only to find myself thinking consciously for a long while. I lay there awake in exasperation, until I finally said “forget it,” turned the lights back on, and opened my book, finally falling asleep as the new day arrived. What happened? I had just suffered a classic episode of Paradoxical Intent.
   Paradoxical intent happens when you want something very badly but, because of fear and anxiety, accomplish the opposite. Let’s say that you need to pass a test in order to be certified in your profession. Your future career and income hinges on the certification, and you study arduously, sacrificing holidays and weekends. When the day of the test arrives you know your subject thoroughly. Nevertheless, at the the moment your pencil touches the exam sheet, your brain goes blank. After two hours of terror, you come out of the exam room certain that you will not pass. So much importance was placed on the exam that your mind shut down, incapacitated by anxiety and fear of failure. This is paradoxical intent at its worst, hampering dreams and aspirations. But it can be avoided in at least three ways, as described below (but feel free to share with me more if you know of any).
   Sandra Anne Taylor suggests that we detach ourselves from the outcome and let go of the urgency, thus deflating anxiety. This is especially helpful when someone fears losing a relationship. If they realize that anxiety and neediness drive people away, they might be able to retain their loved one with a more relaxed attitude.
   Viktor Frankl, indicates that people should confront their fears and limitations. In one of his examples, he describes a chronic stutterer who could no longer do so when he tried to do it purposefully. This is the approach I used. As soon as I decided I’d stay awake and read, I fell asleep.
   But Joseph Murphy has perhaps my favorite solution in times of stress: Easy does it. Even though he never mentions paradoxical intent, he gives us a magic formula for avoiding its effects in his best-seller The Power Of Your Subconsious Mind. He advises us not to use willpower.
      “Instead, visualize the end and the state of freedom it produces… Put away your intellectual problem-solving skills. Persist in maintaining a simple, childlike, miracle-making faith. Picture yourself without the ailment or problem. Imagine the emotional gratification of the freedom of state you seek. Cut out all the red tape from the process. The simple way is the best.”
    Or as Bobby McFerrin put it: Don’t worry, be happy.
–MM