How We Change
I’d like to take just a brief moment to outline one of the key components in my work (and a linchpin of my own personal worldview)—the so-called paradoxical theory of change. This concept, threaded through several of the wisdom traditions of both the East and West was brought into the realm of psychotherapeutic understanding in 1970 by Dr. Arnold Beisser.
In short, the paradoxical theory of change is the understanding that change occurs when we accept ourselves as we are, not when we try to become what we are not. The paradox is that change is not achieved through a process of coercion or manipulation by oneself or others. Instead, change occurs when the individual truly and fully invests in the unfolding experience as it is.
For lasting transformation to take place, we must abandon what we would prefer or desire to be in order to embrace and bring into the richness of our full awareness, what we are. To quote Bessier, “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.”
Humans suffer because we fail to achieve that firm footing. Constantly shifting between what we believe (or have been told) we should be and what we think we truly are, we never sink our weight fully into either experience. Thus we experience instability and unhappiness. To fully drop into the awareness of what is, rather than what we fantasize about requires nothing more than that we sink into the present moment (even when that present moment is horrifying, painful and unsatisfying). For from that place there is an opportunity to move through the horror and into a true experience of something else. This is not a matter of insight, but rather of process. By being what one is—fully—one discovers the space to become something else.
For more on the paradoxical theory of change and its role in the Gestalt Therapy model, see Dr. Bessier’s original article Paradoxical Theory of Change.
3. Breathe! A simple reminder, perhaps, but a powerful action. Breath (along with blinking) is one of the few physiological processes we can consciously control. Think of a time when you were startled or frightened—a car backfired, a door suddenly slammed, someone rounded the corner unexpectedly. Most likely you physically froze, took a big breath and held it. This is natural. The opposite is equally natural. By consciously exhaling and inhaling, slowly and deeply, we can use a physiological process to help navigate an emotional one. Try this the next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or over stressed. Exhale, then take a slow, steady breath in for a count of four. Hold the breath for a count of four. Exhale for a count of four. Hold the breath for a count of four. Repeat.
2. Honor Your Own Needs and Wants. There can be enormous pressure (at the
holidays and throughout the year) to be all things to all people and to set aside your own wants and needs in order to meet the wants and needs of others in
your life. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, unless and until it becomes a perpetual pattern whereby you constantly forsake the signals of your own mind and body in an effort to meet the needs and desires of everyone else. Your experience matters! Saying “no” or “not now” is acceptable. Give yourself permission to take that nap, skip that party, soak in that tub. You may be surprised at how honoring yourself in such ways will help provide more energy for engaging with others afterward.
1. Move! We are an incredibly sedentary culture. We sit in front of screens, tap at phones, drive or ride in cars…yet by design we are creatures of motion. Several times throughout the day, consider stopping whatever activity you are engaged
in and slowly roll your shoulders. Stand up, then gently bend at the waist and bring your hands toward the ground (whether you touch your toes or simply let your arms dangle matters not). Slowly look over your right shoulder. Then your left. Place your hands on your hips and engage in some slow hip circles. Get away from the screens in your life and take a walk, however brief (it need not be for miles). You may be surprised at how stress relieving such simple measures can be.
Better yet, combine all three of these…Honor your desire for less stress by moving and breathing. And let me know what happens!
Bryan Dieterich, MA, LPC