Logotherapy heals by working in the spiritual dimension. By “spiritual” Frankl intends what is unique to human beings, vs. those aspects we have in common with animals. Consequently Frankl notes the relationship between two logotherapeutic techniques and the spiritual strengths from which they are drawn. Dereflection accesses the capacity for self-transcendence. Paradoxical intention accesses the capacity for self-distancing.
Correspondences Between Techniques – Capacities – Principles
1) Dereflection – Self-transcendence – Will to Meaning
2) Paradoxical Intention – Self-distancing – Freedom of Will
3) Socratic Dialogue – Self-awareness – Meaning of Life
If logotherapeutic techniques were no more than a mechanistic manipulation of the behavioral plane, Frankl could be accused of the same reductionism of human experience of which he criticizes the behaviorists.
This is not the case. Underlying each of the techniques is a principle underlining the non-mechanistic nature of our humanity. Problems that beset us are problematic precisely because they take our humanity away from us. They contradict those elements of humanness that logotherapy sees as essential.
Take for example Frankl’s own experience in the concentration camps. Dreaming about food the prisoners were mentally tormented by the fact that this became their existence – forced to only think about food. To remove himself from this mindset Frankl imagined speaking in a well-lit lecture hall in comfortable chairs about existential analysis. This was a case of self-applied dereflection that succeeded by means of self-transcendence to add a measure of meaning to what seemed like a hopeless, mechanical existence.
Dereflection is indicated in cases of hyperintention (trying too hard to succeed) or hyperreflection (overly focused self-observation). When a person is overly self-absorbed, attention is taken away from a self-focus and redirected towards a focus on another person to love or a value to respond to.
Logotherapy is meaning-centered. Rather than asking what I want from life the question is what life wants from me. The person in crisis is very self-absorbed. We are careful not to “side with” the client against the unfairness of life in a way that would reinforce the person’s perception of life as cruel and unjust.
We highlight the meaning of something that is more important to the person than the problem that is distracting him or her. The person’s distress is seen in the context of the spiritual essence of the person “behind” the problem. The meaning in the situation is beckoning the client out of the problem. The situation is seen as a challenge and an invitation to transform human suffering into a human achievement. One of the central themes of logotherapy is that self-transcendence is the essence of human existence. Thus in dereflection we transcend our self to focus on meanings and values.
Frankl explained that dereflection is effective because we draw on our inner resources, specifically our capacity for self-transcendence. I would add a footnote to Frankl’s observation that self-transcendence is the inner resource that powers dereflection. The will to meaning empowers our capacity for self-transcendence.
What is the will to meaning? In contradistinction to homeostasis – the desire to maintain equilibrium by the reduction of tensions – the will to meaning is our primary motivation to find meaning and purpose in our lives. This inner urging causes us to seek and reach out towards people to love and values to fulfill. Frankl believes that we are primarily motivated by the desire for purpose in our lives. We have all experienced complete absorption in a task, to the extent that we forget about ourselves. We can truly be ourselves when we’re not thinking about ourselves, but engaged in meaningful tasks. Our orientation as human beings is one of creativity and interest in fulfilling values. From the youngest age we are born reaching out to make contact with the world. This outward reach is essentially what it means to be human.
Thus as meaning seekers we naturally activate our capacity for self-transcendence unless something prevents the occurrence of this natural phenomenon. The technique of dereflection works by helping us to access our capacity for self-transcendence and mobilizing our will to meaning that is always seeking a transcendent value.
Paradoxical intention is indicated in cases of phobias and obsessions. Paradoxically wishing for the thing we fear and laughing about it breaks the vicious cycle in which the anxiety keeps us feeling like a helpless victim. Instead of fleeing from the fear we ridicule it.
In the application of paradoxical intention we use our capacity for self-distancing or self-detachment through humor, heroism and the defiant power. We can poke fun at a tragic situation. Animals do not know how to laugh. Only humans can laugh. Only humans have a hierarchy of values that gives them something to live for.
Here too the capacity for self-distancing is made possible only because of a different human capacity: freedom of will. This is the core of self-detachment. While we are not free from conditions we are free in the attitude we take towards those conditions. Once we loosen the grip of fear, we are free us to see what confronts us as something we are called upon to do something about! We’re not determined; we can take a stand. We are meant to be victors, not victims! No longer immobilized we are empowered to change things. As Frankl says in the Search for Ultimate Meaning “Being human is not being driven but deciding what one is going to be.”
Thus with our freedom of will we naturally choose to see ourselves from different perspectives and paradoxical intention reactivates our ability to do this.
Socratic dialogue is a means of listening and asking provocative questions or highlighting hints to meaning that come through the person’s words. By listening deeply, the logotherapist assists the person in discerning what s/he is called upon to do in this situation. The faculty of mind that guides this process of discernment is what logotherapy calls “conscience.”
Since Frankl has drawn a parallel between the capacity for self-transcendence and the technique of dereflection and also the capacity for self-distancing and the technique of paradoxical intention, I want to suggest that we take the parallel a step further and connect between the capacity for self-awareness and the technique of Socratic dialogue.
In Socratic dialogue we draw on the human capacity for consciousness of our responsibility. We are not driven; we can evaluate and judge and seek out the meaning of an event. Frankl defines responsibility as response-ability, or the ability to respond to the call of the meaning of the moment. The therapist’s questions in effect illuminate the questions life itself is asking the client. We are questioned by life and we must answer with our life. Here too the technique is only effective insofar as it allows the person to access his human capacity to think about the meaning of his life. The most basic capacity that is required to evaluate and think about our lives is self-awareness.
When we have lost our self-awareness Socratic dialogue helps reinstate it. The questions that are asked in Socratic dialogue forces us to rethink what we’re all about.
Here too as in the capacity for self-transcendence and self-distancing, the capacity for self-awareness can be related to one of logotherapy’s fundamental principles: It affirms and confirms awareness of the unconditional meaningfulness of one’s own life.
In short, the aim of logotherapy is to lift the person out of the psychic level into the human level, because that is where true healing takes place. What makes us human is our capacity to be aware of ourselves, look at ourselves from the outside and finally to transcend who we were so that we can become who we are capable of becoming.
Frankl’s equation D = S – M (despair equals suffering minus meaning) demonstrates the existential component inherent to every problem: Something is contravening our basic humanity. In the absence of meaning there is an existential vacuum or void. As a meaning-centered approach logotherapy pulls us out of the existential vacuum by refilling it with meaning.
It turns out that all three technique reinstate a different aspect of lost meaning.
Socratic dialogue aligns us with who we are by bringing back to our awareness the unconditional meaningfulness and preciousness of our life.
Dereflection helps us get beyond our self-centeredness by bringing our vision and focus back to those values and meanings that we seek.
Paradoxical intention allows us to let go of our firm attachment to our limited perspective on self by reminding us to laugh at our fears.
Thus these are techniques we can trust. They help develop a healthy relationship to self: Self-awareness is very important. Without it how can we evaluate what we’re doing, where we’re going and how we’re relating to others? On the other hand a healthy relationship to self includes not only identifying one’s feelings from the inside but the flexibility and resilience of stepping away from one’s self and being able to see how others see us. Finally we need to not even be aware of self from the inside or from the outside but put our focus on something else altogether.
I bet if you can think of a person who has it all together so to speak, who is healthy in every respect emotionally and spiritually, you will find the right balance of these three capacities of self-awareness, self-distancing and self-transcendence.