Paradox in Change and Creating Space

Paradoxical Theory of Change

I have seen a great deal of discussion, in both academic and popular sources, about the paradoxical nature of change.  The credit for starting this discussion goes to California physician Arnold Beisser in his Paradoxical Theory of Change in 1970.  Essentially, Dr. Beisser suggested that people change by becoming who they truly are rather than becoming something different.  Or in other words, the change efforts that actually work for people are the ones that lead a person to a more natural idea of self rather than something unnatural or fake.

I have no doubt that this is true and the concept does resonate deeply with me as I reflect on my own journey. In fact, the Paradoxical Theory of Change is regarded as the most significant scientific work providing the theoretical backing for a method in psychotherapy called Gestalt Therapy. The theory holds true in the clinical world and there has been much empirical evidence in support:

“Gestalt therapeutic work has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of issues such as anxiety, stress, addiction, tension and depression, whether as a long-term therapy or via a number of sessions. At times of personal difficulty, Gestalt offers people a safe, supportive space to explore difficult feelings, to understand the underlying patterns in personal relationships and to begin making practical changes…Gestalt is also a highly effective and empowering change process for working with individuals, couples, groups, teams and organisations… “

– The Gestault Centre.

A New Paradox of Change

I have no qualms with Beisser’s theory, and Gestalt therapy is fascinating, but I do like to take it one step further because change appears to me to be even more paradoxical.

A deeper paradox emerges when we consider that we resist change so fiercely even in a world – a universe – that is in a constant state of change. This much we can observe in nearly all perceivable systems: material or mechanical, environmental, social, economic, etc. The world is changing. Each cell in our bodies is changing. It stands to reason that, as the children of this change-oriented existence, we would be comfortable with change.  We aren’t, though, and that is truly fascinating!

Our mindsets, world views, and paradigms can – and often do – remain stagnant.  We’re stuck in the past and the world and even our bodies have moved on without us.  We put up mental and emotional walls to keep us feeling safe.  What are we even afraid of? And why? We construct mental models where we decide that inside our box is where we belong and outside our box is not where we belong.  We refer to this as a “comfort zone.” Why would it even be comforting to deny the truth that we are a part of this great change experiment on Earth? This is truly paradoxical.

Creating Space for Change

As I alluded to, this is all about self-identity.  Beisser told us that change is possible when we are attempting to move closer to our self-identity, but this seems to suggest that the identity itself is a static, fundamental reality and we simply deviate from this vision of ourselves over time and must try to reel ourselves back in.  Is it not possible to change the identity, though? It’s funny, because that is exactly what folks within many spiritual traditions seem to be able to do. For example, a Buddhist monk may be able to transcend his ego to identify as being one with the universe, or a Hindu may realize a spiritual identify that inspires belief in reincarnation.  There doesn’t have to be a spiritual belief system in place for identity changes to occur; these are just two examples that are, at least in my view, straight forward and easy to understand.

So, we can observe that it is possible to change our identity; we can also observe, as is the case or has been the case for many of us, that sometimes it is our self-identity is source of problems in our lives.  I do believe that self-identity can be changed and that self-identity drives emotion, which in turn informs action.  I do believe I have changed some of my own self-identities over the years and continue to make changes to other less-than-optimal identities.  I do believe in your ability to do this type of identity work and to make lasting changes in your life and I do believe in my ability to help during your journey. There are many tools and techniques that can be employed to make this process easier and I intend to discuss many of them in this blog. 

The goal here is not for me to try to convince you that I am right and that the way you think about things is wrong.  The goal is not to show you some problem that needs to be fixed or even to demonstrate that these ideas are in some way superior to any other ideas.  The purpose here is to attempt to create space between what you “know” to be true and what “know” to be false by exploring thought from unique angles.  The goal is to create the space you need to open your mind – the space you need to reformulate any harmful or unwanted identities and to reinforce identities that bring you the type of success you want more of. Change needs space, so we’re on a quest to explore our opportunities for space. Nothing more, nothing less.

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