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Why You Need to Quit Trying (An Unconventional Technique that Works)


Try Harder to Fail:  The Crazy Secret

Not all failure is created equal.  Instead of saying there is the good, the bad, and the ugly type of failure, (which would be so clique), I will say, “There is the learned, the innovative, and the crazy.”

Crazy is the bad and ugly type of failure.  It is not productive, but rather demoralizing, anxiety producing and feels more like a battering ram than a learning process.  This failure is best characterized by the definition of crazy.  “Crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Ever been there?  We all have.

Paradoxical Intent:  Why You Need to Quit Trying

This is when you need to quit trying.  Or, paradoxically, try harder in the opposite direction.  “Paradoxical Intent” is a technique first used and discussed by Victor Frankl in a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning.”  Frankl was a psychiatrist and a survivor of the Jewish concentration camps.  He had many success stories using this technique, but one in particular was about a man who stuttered.

The More You Try to Avoid Something, the More Likely You Are to Do It

For his entire life, no matter how hard he tried, the stuttering man never got a moment’s relief from his stuttering.  There was only one instance when this was not true.  Once, as a twelve-year boy, he had tried to “steal” a ride on a street car.  When caught by the conductor, he figured he could avoid punishment by demonstrating “what a poor, stuttering boy he was.”  When he tried to do so, he couldn’t.  Unintentionally, he had practiced Paradoxical Intent.

Sweat More!

Frankl recommended to one individual who sweat profusely (and was very embarrassed by it) to adopt the opposite attitude toward his sweating.  Instead of trying to suppress his sweating, the man was told to attempt to sweat gallons and show everyone how prolific at sweating he was.  Frankl reported that the patient laughed and did as he said, thus pre-empting and sabotaging the anxiety.  The patient never had the problem of sweating too much again.

When Does the Technique Work Best?

Paradoxical Intent works best when trying to exert mental control, which usually leads to guaranteeing the opposite outcome you desire.  Use this technique when a “thinking cyclone or rut” is created by the anxiety of trying to avoid a thought or a behavior.

Relax, Sleep, and Forget

For instance, thinking about trying to avoid panic attacks has been found to create them.  People with panic disorders are especially prone to attacks when they try to relax.  Even if you don’t have panic attacks, have you ever tried to relax, sleep, or forget only to find that is the last thing you can do?

Keeping Secrets

Another example is when trying to keep your problems secret from other people. This involves the use of mental control and according to Wegner, in an article entitled “When the Antidote is the Poison,“ (Wegner, 1997)  people who keep secrets in the laboratory or in everyday life commonly become preoccupied with them.  Telling secrets to someone can free you of their control since the desire to keep things hidden may actually give the secrets more power.

Anything you try to avoid that is fear or anxiety inducing will paradoxically create more anxiety and fear.  Several researchers found that the habit of avoiding fearful situations can start early.

The More You Try to Avoid Something, the More Anxiety it Produces

Mayo Clinic reported on a study done by Dr. Whiteside and others.  He studied how 800 children in the age range of 7 to 18 sought to avoid anxiety-producing situations.  Both the children and the parents were asked if the children avoided situations that caused them anxiety.  They were asked questions such as, “When your child is scared or worried about something, does he or she ask to do it later?”

These researchers found that a child’s avoidance behavior actually could predict the future development of anxiety in the child. Children who reported more avoidance behaviors at the start of the experiment were more anxious one year later. Conversely, the researchers also found anxiety disorders declined in 25 anxious children if they were slowly exposed to the fearful situations, giving the kids an opportunity to face their fears and learn that their fears were manageable(Whiteside, Gryczkowski, Ale, Brown-Jacobsen, & McCarthy, 2013). (Adler & Towne, 2001; Whiteside et al., 2013)

Do Something—Anything!

This is why doing something—anything—toward an anxiety-producing problem in your business or your life can create progress–if only in your psyche.  Sometimes anxiety shuts down good problem-solving skills, nevertheless, doing something—anything–can get you to a better place mentally.  Expose yourself to the fear slowly and give yourself credit for even baby steps in addressing it.

Undo the Problem by Undoing the Control

If you are feeling preoccupied with thoughts of failure or anxiety or if you’re feeling frustrated over ineffective and non-productive habits, try these techniques:

  1.  Do more of it.  Next time you are being distracted, worried, or feeling anxious, set aside 15 minutes to do nothing but worry.  Or in the case of distraction, instead of telling yourself to focus, try giving yourself 15 minutes to be as distracted as you want.
  2. Talk to someone about your fears.  Sometimes those little fuzz balls of unidentified anxiety can hide out in obscure places.  They get dusted away from our minds by identifying and then talking about them.
  3. Journal. Pennebaker has researched and journaling extensively and has found that the benefits of writing about important personal experiences in an emotional way improves mental and physical health. (Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999)
  4. Redirect your thoughts instead of trying to control them.  Your mind cancels out “don’t” and “not.”  Your mind literally cannot process the negative.  It does what you direct it to do.  When you say “don’t” do something, it cancels the “not” and focuses all its laser beam power on the designated task. @GardTHansen  Gard Hansen told how he saw a video of Nick Faldo, a former number one in golf.  Faldo said that he never used the word, “Don`t.”  He knew if he told himself, “Don`t miss this shot,” he would miss it.

Faldo knew to tell himself to “make the shot” rather than “Don’t miss the shot.” You cannot NOT do something or NOT think something.  You can only Do something or think something.  Redirect your mind to thinking what you want to think and doing what you want to do.

Finally, don’t allow yourself to be avoidant.  Okay, I’ll say it like this:  Allow yourself to face your fear and anxiety.  Like the children whose anxiety increased when they were allowed to avoid difficult situations, you must advance toward what causes you fear or anxiety.

The fear of failure is a normal, cautionary mechanism built into all of us.  It can be our friend, helping us to avoid situations which could harm us.  But sometimes that same fear does not serve us well.  When that is the case, try the techniques mentioned above and tame the Fear Cheetah.  It’s really just a common ‘ol everyday house cat that can be managed.


  1. Adler, R. B., & Towne, N. (2001). Looking Out, Looking In (10th ed.): Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
  2. Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55(10), p1243, 1212p;.
  3. Wegner, D. M. (1997). When the Antidote is the Poison: Ironic Mental Control Processes. Psychological Science, 8(3), 148-150.
  4. Whiteside, S., Gryczkowski, M., Ale, C., Brown-Jacobsen, A., & McCarthy, D. (2013). Development of child-and parent-report measures of behavioral avoidance related to childhood anxiety disorders Behavior Therapy.



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