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Reversed Psychology

Fr. Francis Ongkingco



The teacher was beginning the class when one of the pupils stood up and started walking around the classroom.

“Jason,” he gently called the boy’s attention.

“Yes, teacher James?”

“We are about to begin, would you like to sit down now?”

“Uh, huh,” the boy mumbled and walked to his classmate’s desk.

“Jason? Did you hear what I said?” The teacher tried to remain calm.

Jason, however, continued walking around and began humming a tune.

Some of his classmates tried to call his attention to what the teacher had said. Still he seemed oblivious to everything around him. He trotted to the blackboard and then quickly pivoted back to his desk.

The teacher was relieved to see the boy going back to his desk but was dismayed when the boy passed his desk and skipped to the opposite side of the classroom instead.

“Okay, Jason,” the teacher sighed, “if you wish, you can walk and hum around the classroom as we have our class. Okay?”

At these words, Jason suddenly stopped at his tracks and to the teacher’s surprise replied, “That’s reverse psychology, right?”

Later on, the teacher commented to his co-workers how he could not hide his amusement and simply let out hearty laugh at the boy’s wise comment.

* * *

When I heard this story I was reminded of our Lord’s parable about the father and his two sons. To the first he said, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.” The son replied “I will not” but afterwards changed his mind and went. The father then gave his second son the same command. This one said, “I will” but he did not go in the end.

The parable somehow reflects little Jason’s case of “reverse psychology”. But God, unlike us, doesn’t use psychological techniques to encourage us to do the right thing. He simply tells us what is good for us, what will make us love Him and lead us to Heaven.

Instead, we should be the ones to apply a form of “reverse psychology” to ourselves in order to overcome our pride, laziness, vanity, and other defects. The saints are an example of skillfully living this “spiritual reverse psychology.”

For example, St. Josemaría, in the early years of beginning Opus Dei, found himself heaped with so much pastoral work and the responsibility of supporting his mother and siblings.

There were days when he had only three or four hours of sleep. He would naturally consider “making up for the lost hours” later during the day. But when the moment came to finally rest, he didn’t go to sleep as planned and wittily remarked to himself, “Josemaría, you have fooled Josemaría!”

St. Josemaría did not hesitate to apply the same “technique” to the most insignificant and hidden things: for example, he didn’t give himself the privilege of comfortably using a chair’s backrest, he always made sure that in every meal he ate with Christian temperance rather than to leave the table like a pagan, and he forfeited himself of trivial curiosities if only to focus more on his prayers, work, and conversations with others.

The art of this “spiritual reverse psychology” is acquired when we focus our attention away from our ego and turn it towards God and others. We can apply this “skill” to our daily encounter with moments of irritation, critical thoughts, self-indulgence, and many other similar tendencies.

One area where this “reverse psychology” would be useful is during our “don’t feel like moments”. For example, we don’t feel like praying during the family Rosary, that we feel we would rather go to a later Mass on Sunday simply out of whim or laziness, or we are just not up to visiting our in-laws.

It is precisely during these periods that we must reverse our negative perspectives and dispositions. In the first place, we must remind ourselves that these so-called undesirable situations are actually very good in themselves. It isn’t like we are going to be automatically put to shame, insulted or hurt. Praying will always be good, so is going to Mass and visiting relatives.

Second, and more importantly, the apparent negative event is actually an enormous “hidden treasure of grace” that is waiting to upgrade us in some particular human and supernatural virtue. That is why, we must seize it even though like the son in the parable we may have said, “I won’t go!” but later on rectified and fulfilled his father’s will.

May we not be discouraged at our first impulses at life’s negativities. Like children, let us have the courage and humility to begin again, and be dazzled upon discovering that applying a “reversed attitude” to our superficial bad dispositions will convert them into a conversion, a deeper supernatural encounter with our Father God.

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