Come the New Year, come the idea to make some changes; to get fit, to be happier, to drink less – the list goes on.
I am sure it is a well-researched fact that sales of self-help books increase in January, as does gym membership. And yet how often does the resolve dissolve after a month or two and is then not thought about until the following New Year’s Eve.
The paradoxical theory of change
One approach to not succumbing to this familiar pattern can found in gestalt therapies’ paradoxical theory of change. This theory was first described by Arnold Beisser in 1970. Beisser suggests that the more we try to change, the more we stay the same. He says, “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. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.” (Beisser, 1970).
Beisser is telling us that change is only possible when we fully accept and understand the process and mechanisms involved in desiring a change to take place.
However, when we desperately want a change, it is very difficult to turn and invest in the current position, particularly if it is difficult to understand the rationale of a theory that can sound counter intuitive. It might be useful to take a closer look at how the Paradoxical Theory of Change works in practice. If through an example, the movement of this process becomes clearer, our ability to invest in the current position may become strengthened.
An example of the Paradoxical Theory of Change
So here is a hypothetical example. Tom (who is not based on anyone in particular) wants to lose weight. He has put on weight over Christmas and feels uncomfortable and disgusted with himself. So he starts a diet, joins a gym and plans a rigorous routine. He feels enthusiastic and starts on his new routine. However, a couple of weeks later, he is eating more than ever and not going to the gym.
In terms of the Paradoxical Theory of Change, the reason for this is that here is an internal conflict. He wants to get rid of the “fat” version of himself. This “fat” one represents everything he doesn’t like about himself. If he changes that, he can get rid of those unwelcome feelings. He can change and become a leaner version of himself that he will like.
Fritz Perls, one of the founders of gestalt therapy, said that this conflict was made up of a top dog and an under-dog. In other words, a “shoulder” and a “resister”. The shoulder (or top dog) is saying “I must be lean” and the resister (or under-dog) is saying “I don’t want to stop eating or do exercise – leave me alone!” These two positions are in an intrapsychic war which takes up all his energy. At this point Tom may give up and forget about any desire to change until next the next New Year’s resolution comes around.
If however, he was to work following the Paradoxical Theory of Change, he would investigate further. By investing in the current position, it is likely that he would discover more about each position.
He might find out that he is tired and overworked and eating is providing comfort. He might also unearth harsh internalised messages such as “I must be lean in order to be loved”. These feelings may need to be expressed and understood. This work may also reveal that there are some other changes Tom needs to make first before he can move towards getting fitter and losing weight. For example, getting enough rest, spending time with friends, to name but two.
Choices vs. demands
Investing in these two positions that are at war allows a different kind of internal conversation to emerge and a possible integration of the two positions. This may result in choices rather than demands. With the greater support that this new understanding and integration makes possible, Tom may discover that his relationship to eating and exercise changes, giving space to develop a routine that is not based on a rejection of himself and his needs.
As Beisser says; “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.”
So maybe this year’s New Year’s Resolution could be being where you are, and that is certainly not as easy as it may sound! Good luck.