Paradoxical Theory Of Change

This essay from a gestalt therapist, The Paradoxical Theory of Change, addresses a central idea in gestalt: attend to what you are actually doing, in the present moment, as the pathway to do something different. Gestalt is one of the influences in the school of psychology I study, Process Work. Check out Gianna’s recent video of Fritz Perls, it’s a fascinating view into the origins of modern therapy. Gestalt brings people to pay close attention to actual moment by moment experience in the here-and-now. This is of course closely related to meditation “mindfulness” practice, and meditation is a great way to strengthen skills as a gestalt or process oriented therapist.

If you look closely at most emotional problems we have, we are often, in the moment, doing two things: having the problem and also struggling to change it. We focus on the part that is the problem and don’t see how at the same time there another part that is trying to change ourselves. “Gestalt” means whole and addressing all the parts that are present. Paradoxically, just having the problem and not trying to change it is a kind of change. The effort to change itself was part of the problem, we just didn’t see it that way.

Because people are processes in time, when you have a problem fully and drop trying to change it, it can sometimes give it an opportunity to be fully itself, and then unfold into something different. Previously you weren’t just having the problem, you were also trying to change it, which again paradoxically, might been part of why it wouldn’t change.

This of course doesn’t always hold true, and humans are a lot more mysterious and unpredictable than any theoretical formula can ever grasp. But I find these ideas of “paradoxical change” to be really useful and insightful to get me out of my ordinary way of approaching problems. I also like the spiritual resonance of the present moment having everything it needs within it, if you see it mindfully.

…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.

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.

The person seeking change by coming to therapy is in conflict with at least two warring intrapsychic factions. He is constantly moving between what he “should be” and what he thinks he “is,” never fully identifying with either. The Gestalt therapist asks the person to invest himself fully in his roles, one at a time. Whichever role he begins with, the patient soon shifts to another.

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