The Paradoxical Theory of Change

..change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions.  

Arnold Beisser, M.D.

The paradoxical theory of change found in Beisser’s article is one of my favourite Gestalt concepts.

It struck me again today how the person centred values of empathy and being non-judgemental are not just ways of creating a nice, fluffy therapeutic environment but that they are radical and political and turn the world on its head. They assume what the paradoxical theory of change assumes, that we do not need to change others or ourselves.

The Gestalt therapist rejects the role of “changer,” for his strategy is to encourage, even insist, that the patient be where and what he is. He believes change does not take place by “trying,” coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the patient abandons, at least for the moment, what he would like to become and attempts to be what he is. The premise is that one must stand in one place in order to have firm footing to move and that it is difficult or impossible to move without that footing. (Ibid)

When we try to be who we are not, we stay more and more stuck in a cycle of attempting the impossible and of failure to become someone else’s version of us. When we are compassionate and accept ‘what is’, who we are, then profound change happens, we move by standing still in acceptance. Less effort can be more productive. At a physical level this is what I experienced from my experience with Alexander Technique last week and psychologically, I know my brain function improves when my physiology is relaxed.

So often we say, “I’m trying”. Trying to lose weight, to finish our essay, to relax, to stop crying, to get it right. Trying doesn’t work half as well as being. Stopping trying is radical. Compassion, non-judgement and empathy for ourselves and others, support this radical step. Imogen said to me as I tried to relax my shoulders, that she often teaches her students, “if you are trying, you are not doing it”.

Sometimes we seem to need to justify our feelings, “It’s because I’m tired  / hormonal / it happened before / I had a bad week”.  Why do we feel we have to build a court case to simply be? I sometimes explain to my clients that when we sneeze, blink or hiccough we don’t go into long justifications, we know we are blinking because we need to blink, we don’t feel a need to explain this. So is a weep or a shout or and excited jumping up and down really so unacceptable we have to apply for permission, quoting extenuating circumstances, before we can experience and express it?

What would it be like to just be, to stop trying and and justifying and explaining? Effortless, I imagine.


One comment on “The Paradoxical Theory of Change

  1. ImogenRagone on said:

    Great post, Miriam (and thanks for mentioning me), and I love the tie in to Alexander Technique principles! I wonder if I was actually quoting Yoda from Star Wars, “Do or do not – there is no try!”

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