I should work more efficiently, handle conflicts better, move more, and eat healthier. Do you have similar thoughts? We often have expectations and demands on ourselves about who we want to be and get angry at ourselves for not achieving them. We may even blame ourselves for our negative traits or refuse to acknowledge them altogether. Motivational guides tell us to set goals, focus on them, and persistently pursue them. However, can we achieve our goals and change ourselves if we don’t fully understand ourselves?
In psychology, there is a theory that suggests that we paradoxically change when we don’t directly seek change. Change occurs when we don’t use our willpower to try to be someone we are not, someone we consciously want to be. Expectations of who we should be may not be our own, but instead may come from family, bosses, society, and others. Arnold Beisser is the author of the concept of paradoxical theory of change and first published it in 1970.
The paradoxical theory of change is used by the so-called Gestalt approach, which views the personality of a person as a whole. From this perspective, the internal processes of personality, such as our traits, have two poles, both of which are part of us. This means that we are not only kind, but also unkind; we are not always good, but occasionally our bad side shows itself. However, sometimes we avoid admitting to ourselves that negatives are also a part of us. We may not want to admit that there are situations in which we behave aggressively, hatefully, unfairly, etc., in short, in ways that we do not want to behave.
In the case of our desire to change, our will and effort (referred to as the “top dog” in Gestalt psychotherapy) come to the forefront of our consciousness as we strive towards something that is not inherent to us. The opposite pole is represented by the so-called “under dog” or spontaneity, impulsiveness, and our unconscious parts. These unconscious parts may develop counteractivity in the form of rebellion, passive aggression, or conformity when faced with high levels of conscious determination, will, and self-conviction towards something we are not identified with. The part of our personality that has not been accepted and integrated by us can then manifest indirectly, for example, through a lack of spontaneity, loss of interest in life, or as an illness, even depression. The circle closes, as it is precisely when we do not feel comfortable in our own skin that we want to change the most.
The principle of the paradox of change
Perhaps the most central principle of the Gestalt approach is focusing on the “here and now.” “Here and now” teaches us to slow down a little, not to think about the past or the future, but to pause in the present. This reminds me of the famous line from the German poet J. W. Goethe: “Pause, moment, you are beautiful!” which the blind Faust utters at the end of his life, after listening to the beating of drums.
This principle supports perception through the senses and develops awareness. Try to find a few minutes when you stop and start to perceive what you see. Not just directly in front of you, but what you see in your field of vision, beside you, above you, behind you… Do you hear any sounds? What kind? Do you smell any scents? What do they remind you of? How would you describe them? What taste do you have in your mouth? What do you touch? With your feet, hands, back? What material is it? Try to describe these sensations in detail for yourself.
The paradoxical theory of change is based on the processes of perception and awareness. In order for change to occur, we need to become ourselves, which means learning to identify our current feelings, thoughts, and emotions. We need to make contact with them and engage in a dialogue with them. Rather than avoiding the negative parts of ourselves, we need to consciously address them, explore them, understand them, and accept them – integrate them as part of our personality. When this happens, when we get to know ourselves better, change and growth naturally occur.
“When I do not allow myself to be unkind, I will never truly be kind.” – Joseph Zinker
Only when we know our true selves can we change our habits, which we developed in the past when they were useful to us and brought us desired benefits. Over time, their usefulness has faded, but we have not given them up and continue to use them uncritically and unnecessarily.
The decision to explore oneself, to open up internal barricades, is not easy. Especially at first, it has a similar impact on us as when we start picking at a healed wound. We disturb our established “self,” and we do not know what awaits us, what we will discover, and what will happen to us. We may experience uncomfortable feelings and anxiety. Psychiatrist Radkin Honzák humorously summed it up by saying that “digging around in oneself is always a risk that we will find some monster there.” It is not surprising since our previous stability will be disrupted, and we may begin to waver from side to side and even fall. But after the fall, we gain space to stand up again – a little different, stronger, and ultimately more stable.
Change is not a state, change is a process
Life is constant change. We do not live in isolation, but always function in a certain environment (the so-called “field”), with which we are in constant contact. We act on the environment and the environment acts on us. We move in an infinite field of relationships with someone or something. To become ourselves, we need to engage in new interactions with the environment. In situations where we talk to a stranger or when we solve something we have not encountered before. It is therefore an active, never-ending, creative process. The goal of Gestalt therapy is not to build a fixed, unchanging character of a person, but rather their individual stability so that they can keep up with the times and actively adapt to new circumstances.
Let me try to illustrate how the exploration and awareness of internal processes might look like in a specific situation. Imagine a woman, Tamara, around 40 years old, working in a bank with clients. She does not love her job very much and has recently noticed that she cannot work with her anger towards clients. She knows that she must be friendly and helpful at work, but almost every day there is a client who is unhappy with something and does not behave nicely towards her. He is angry, raises his voice, does not listen to what Tamara says. In Tamara, his behavior evokes increasing anger, she would like to calmly speak and rationally argue with the client, but cannot say a word because she feels that she would explode if she did. She could not control herself and her inner critic tells her that she really cannot afford it. In general, she does not perceive herself as an explosive person.
When Tamara thinks about what is happening to her in this situation, she says that her throat tightens so much that no sound can pass through the narrow slit that has formed in it. Sometimes she also feels pressure on her chest. If Tamara were in a Gestalt therapy session, the therapist would probably ask her how her constricted throat feels and what she would need in that moment. Let’s say that taking a few deep breaths helps Tamara. The therapist suggests that at the next such unpleasant meeting, she confesses her anger to herself and to the client and asks him to communicate more calmly. Tamara gives up her past idea that expressing anger in front of others is unacceptable and that displays of anger are aggressive with negative consequences for the environment. She allows herself to feel the anger she has inside, no longer suppresses or ignores it, but establishes contact and works with it.
Tamara could also be offered the opportunity to try the technique of two chairs in Gestalt therapy. Her task would be to speak for her polarities. On one chair, she would identify with the “helpful woman” polarity and speak for her. Then she would move to the other chair and speak through the mouth of the “angry woman” polarity. Through this technique, Tamara can explore the different aspects of herself and become aware of the conflicts and contradictions within herself.