The Paradoxical Theory of Change - Why Trying to Force Change Rarely Works
Do you feel that you are trying very hard to change something in your life or something about you but no matter how hard you push yourself to change, you don’t end up getting the results or outcomes you desire? Do you find you can force some change in the short term but it doesn’t stick and you soon fall back into your old habits and patterns?
A core concept of Gestalt Therapy is the idea that the more you try to actively change yourself to be something that you are not, the more you stay the same. Strangely it is only when you stop trying to force yourself to change that you allow yourself to be in a state to grow and develop naturally. This idea is known as the Paradoxical Theory of Change, a phrase coined by Arnold Beisser. The idea can be summed up as “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.”
Change that is lasting and meaningful comes about as an organic process. It can be seen across nature in organisms as a by-product of that organism's growth and development. Think about a seed that grows into a plant, that eventually flowers. The seed does not instantly change to become a flower. Instead it makes contact and interacts with the environment it finds itself in. If the conditions are right, if it has enough nutrients, water, sunlight, it absorbs these nutrients and naturally grows at a rate that is in relation to what resources are available. Over time, through this process, the seed will organically transform into something completely different from what it originally started out as.
If the environment is lacking in a certain resource, the plant will adapt itself and its growth to find what it is missing . Stems will grow towards light sources and roots towards water if a plant is lacking in these things before it will start to flower.
Human beings admittedly are far more complicated than plants and yet we too share this natural process of growth with them. We grow in a sustainable and lasting way through contacting and interacting with our environment. And like the seed, sometimes the conditions of our environment are not conducive to us being able to fulfil our full potential and aspirations. This isn’t just limited to physical resources. Psychologically we need more ethereal things such as love, connection, stability, meaning, safety to be able to grow.
Unlike the seed though, as humans we also have the gift of consciousness. How we make sense of the world massively affects the way we interact with it, thus affecting our own growth. Often the lessons we learnt and internalised when we were young, that either made sense at the time or that we were compelled to accept, are carried over unconsciously to different environments later in life where they may no longer serve us as well.
As humans we can easily become disconnected from our own needs and end up pursuing things and goals which we are told will make us happy but are not our own natural desires or needs. Additionally we can often keep trying to meet our needs in ways that are not effective out of habit or because we don't know of any other way, and so we end up repeating patterns of behaviour that are familiar, but maybe not effective. Both of these things can lead to us having a distorted image of our self that doesn’t truly represent who we are, what we need and what we feel. Living from this distorted sense of self will never be able to satisfy us and will not provide a solid foundation from which to create lasting, meaningful growth.
With this in mind, Gestalt Therapy’s approach to growth and change is not to try and help you come up with a strategy to change your behaviour or thoughts directly. Rather a Gestalt therapist will work with you to help you develop your self awareness and how you operate and make sense of the world. From there you can reconnect with your true self and have a foundation to grow and develop meaningfully and sustainably. Because like that seed, you naturally have within you the potential to grow and develop and meet any challenge you face.
Link to Arnold Beisser article “The Paradoxical Theory of Change”: