Performing odd, unexpected and absurd actions in psychotherapy is not something one usually learns in graduate school. In fact, in my many years in training, giving absurd directives was never covered. There were examples of various leaders in the field doing strange things to create change but this was never followed up with explanations or encouragement on how to perform such actions. In really examining the use of absurdity and paradox in therapy we find that it is the unexpected that creates a sense of confusion in clients which opens the space for new possibilities to emerge.
Even though great therapists such as Whitaker, Haley, Erickson, Palazzoli, etc. have used absurdity and paradox in their work, as of late there does not appear to be much information in the literature about how or why to perform such maneuvers. I personally believe that being open to absurdity not only makes you a better therapist, but also allows you to have a happier life. The nature of life itself is absurd, so why not embrace this fact? Absurdity can be utilized for shaking up interactions in a way that forces clients to find a different way of relating to the situation which originally brought them to therapy.
In order to create absurdity in the therapy room, clinicians must be one hundred percent willing to abandon any rigid ways of interacting with clients. They should be prepared to act in a spontaneous and creative manner. To be absurd we need to not make any sense. This statement will clash with the prevailing paradigm of logical, left brained therapy which appears to engulf much of the evidence based research. We are often taught that we need to teach our clients to think and act rationally in order for them to change. Certainly these are good objectives, but I will raise the point that it is in learning to deal with the absurdity of life where we really learn to be happy. When we become confused by things we naturally search for understanding. While we are trying to make sense of certain absurd actions, we automatically are being stretched out of our habitual ways of relating to our world. With this stretching process we become open to new resources in how to respond to the absurdity of the moment and of life in general.
Some examples of using absurdity to create change:
1. I once saw a couple who were having issues due to the wife’s unwillingness to let her husband have any power in the relationship. She was very controlling but at the same time wanted her husband to “step up” and take some control in the household. The husband wanted to do this but every time he attempted to “step up” she would create a fight because it triggered her control issues and he would back down. He was stuck in a “double bind” situation (which was absurd to begin with). Even though both the husband and the wife logically knew what the situation was, nothing was changing. When they came to their first session, I got their approval for them to do anything I asked them to do as long as it did not violate any safety, security or ethical boundaries. I then told them to go home and on the next day that they were home alone with nowhere to go (which was the upcoming Saturday), they were to wear each others’ clothing for the whole day. The husband was to wear one of his wife’s dresses and she was to wear one of his suits. They were instructed to do whatever they wanted to do that day but they were not allowed to talk about how they felt about the change of clothing. They reluctantly agreed. On the next session, three weeks later, it was revealed that the wife had begun to allow the husband to take on more responsibility in the home.
2. A man in his late 50s came to therapy stating that he was emotionally wounded from the constant “destructive” criticism he received growing up. He stated that he was in a wonderful marriage and his wife rarely ever criticized him. He said the problem was anytime she would offer anything that was “constructive” criticism; he would emotionally withdraw because it would activate his old fears and emotional pain from his past history of “destructive” criticism. He was open to trying anything to get past this problem. His wife was called during the session and put on speaker phone. I directed her to constantly criticize her husband for the next three days about everything. I told her to let him know that he was breathing incorrectly eating incorrectly, sleeping incorrectly or anything else he naturally did. Clearly confused, both parties agreed to do it. When the husband returned in a week he told me not only had he not been upset at any criticism, but both his wife and daughter began to open up more to him to let him know how they felt about certain private things. The dialogue in the home was more emotional in a positive way and he felt closer to his family. He was clearly confused how getting criticism from loved ones for three days created the ability for a family to become closer and more loving toward each other.
In order to be effective at performing absurd actions in therapy we need to be sure that we have our clients’ best interests at heart and that we are asking them to do things which we would be willing to do ourselves. We are creating an alive” Zen Koan” in our therapy room when we allow absurdity in. By being open to absurdity and paradox we also free ourselves to become more creative in our interventions. There is not fixed pattern when we utilize absurdity. To do this we are jumping off into the unknown. This may be frightening to some practitioners who cling to standardized regimentation. To me, that is absurd!
For a case study of the absurd I offer the following clip from the Marx Brothers. Get out your notebooks and watch how literally everything within this clip is absurd, yet it creates a wider perspective of what could happen.