We generally see change as a problem to be solved. So if I have a problem with anxiety, my solution might be to take up relaxation classes, and try to make myself less anxious. When people come to see me, one of the things that often emerges is the reason they have come, is not because they haven't tried to change. Their story is one of trying very hard to change, and finding that for some reason they are unable to.
In my article on changing habits, I looked at some of what psychology has to say about why change is difficult. In this article, I am going to look at what counselling has to say about change, and in particular what it is that makes change possible.
Within the Humanistic Gestalt tradition, Arnold Beisser's paradoxical theory of change is a central concept (right). He argued that change happens when we start being who we are, and stop trying to become something we are not. This statement on the surface appears to be contradictory, because he is implying that change only happens when we stop trying to change!
Beisser's idea flies very much in the face of how we understand change. If I go to see a counsellor because I am feeling anxious, rather than trying to feel calm, something I am not, he suggests that to change I need to allow myself to be anxious. He seems to be saying that I can only feel less anxious by allowing myself to be anxious, which doesn't seem to make much sense at all.
Why doesn't trying to change work?
The answer is that we are a social animal, living in social groups. Over time we have shifted from living in small extended family groups as hunter-gathers to living in large towns and cities in contact with many hundreds if not thousands of people. To live together we have had to create rules that we agree to live by. There are two types of rules. Explicit rules, such as Laws, School Rules, "Be polite to Aunty Susan when she comes round." We also have implicit rules. These are rules which we understand by watching the behaviour of other people. Implicit rules are much more important and will usually trump explicit rules.
The "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster is a very relevant illustration of this split between explicit and implicit social rules. It was one of three poster styles originally devised by the Ministry of Information in 1939 to help boost morale if Britain sustained a wartime catastrophe. However this poster, of which millions were printed, was hardly ever used. The other two, "Your Courage" and "Your Freedom" were used in small numbers, but they were perceived as being patronising and devisive. People already knew they needed to "keep calm and carry on," and making this rule explicit was considered to be insulting. The poster was later discovered by Barter Books Ltd in 2000, and went on to become massively popular. It came to represent an essential sense of Britishness, and an inspiring message during the financial crisis, which is explored in Susannah Walker's book, Home Front Posters. This rule was and still is a source of social harmony. It allows us to co-operate during times of stress. It can also be a cause of personal distress.
In our culture, the ability to be cool in a crisis is a highly prized quality. We admire people who can remain calm in highly charged situations; the staff member who comes back to work the next day after a loved one has died; people who seem to be able to soldier on in very stressful situations. Out of this comes a definition of coping. We perceive that a strong emotional reaction, such as crying, is a sign that the person is not coping. Now imagine I have absorbed and internalised this as a rule to live by, and someone I care about deeply dies. My normal strategy for coping, "putting on a brave face" becomes overwhelmed by my feelings of sadness. When I cry, I try to cope by stopping myself crying. I may succeed to a certain extent, only to find that my sadness 'leaks' out as feelings of depression. So now not only am I miserable because someone I love has died, I have also added in feelings of failure and inadequacy because I have decided that I am not coping. My efforts at 'coping' do not allow me to reach a resolution, because I never allow myself long enough with my feelings of sadness to be able to process them, and the more I try to 'cope', to be something I'm not, the more stuck I become. What I actually need are the resources to be able to be what I am, without feeling overwhelmed.
So to summarise, Beisser's understanding of 'trying to be something you're not' seems to be about trying to follow a societal rule which is at odds with your own internal sense of yourself. In counselling speak, these rules when they become internalised are called introjects. While, 'becoming what you are' seems to be about allowing yourself to follow this internal sense, that is being conveyed by emotions, which begs a question...
How does following your feelings lead to change?
The faces above, all convey different emotions - fed up, questioning, mirth, determined. Their face shapes are representations of these inner worlds, and we all experience a continually shifting and complex array of emotions. These emotions also acquire labels. Some will be called negative, some positive. The fed up man might be described as having a negative emotion, the laughing man positive. When we start labelling emotions this way, they become something we try to avoid, or something we try to attain.
Emotions themselves, however, are neither positive or negative, rather they form our valuing system. They tell us what is important to us. They happen in response to our ever changing world. The determined girl is focusing on something in the distance. Perhaps she is looking out for someone. Maybe she is worrying about where they are, or perhaps she is angry they have gone, and maybe she is even hoping they won't come back. We can see from her expression that this is important to her. Emotions require a response from us. For the girl, it is to stare intently out of the window. It could also be to search, or ask people around her where this someone is, or shout, or cry. It is how we respond to our feelings that is either negative or positive.
We have emotions so we can respond meaningfully to the world around us. As an emotion builds we also build up energy in response. As we build energy, we transform this into the energy to take action, to respond to what is important to us. This process of responding and connecting to what is important enables us to ultimately to resolve and withdraw from it. It is this process that allows change to occur. By allowing myself feelings of sadness when someone I care about dies, allows me to build energy, to take action, and connect with what is important. My response might be to cry, recognising that they have gone. It might be to find a way to continue the relationship, by talking to them, or keeping momentos, visiting their grave, telling and re-telling stories about my time with them. It is through this process that I 'resolve' my feelings of sadness, and begin to find meaning in my life again.
From a bereavement perspective when I talk about resolution I do not mean no longer feeling sad, rather resolution is about responding in a way that enables the person to make meaning of the loss.
How does paradoxical change work in the counselling room?
For me as a counsellor, this is about helping to create a sense of safety, to allow the space for the feeling to emerge so you can build the energy to respond. This may mean looking at strategies that allow you to experience strong feelings, such as mindfulness, breathing, and pausing. So, it is also often about slowing down how quickly a feeling builds, enabling you to explore other ways of responding, rather than just reacting to the feeling, or being overwhelmed by it. By helping to create enough safety for the person I am with to be able to connect with a feeling, I don't have to direct the change, it just happens - which is what Beisser means when he says "by rejecting the role of change agent."
Memories of a counselling student
Only a few years ago, although sometimes it feels like a lifetime, I was among a group of fellow students, sat in front of our lecturer, who was describing the paradoxical theory of change. My first impression was of brain ache, just trying to make sense of the statement "change occurs when he becomes what he is; not when he tries to become what he is not". The thought "do what?" floated through my head. Then our lecturer gave us an example of a client who had tried for many years to lose weight, and magically started losing weight when she stopped trying. I vividly recall sitting in a room of people all nodding sagely, with a palpable aura of disbelief hanging in the air.
When I started practicing as a counsellor, I noticed this paradox held a truth, not only for the people I saw, it was also true for me. And I re-read my books to see if there was an explanation, but to my frustration there seemed to be none, or at least none that made sense to me. So for me, this article is also about fitting a little jigsaw piece in an incomplete puzzle.
Beisser, A. (1970). The Paradoxical theory of Change. Originally published in Fagan and Shepherd's Gestalt Therapy.
Title image by Mac-Leod