How to Change, Not by Doing, But by Understanding

In my work as a mental health therapist I meet people every day, myself included at times, who feel frustrated, hopeless, helpless and demoralized by their inability to change. Blaming themselves and believing that something is wrong with them they fall into depressed self hatred and self punishment.

Why is it so difficult to change? What does it take to change? If people understand this they would not hate and denigrate themselves for failing to change. This is why I am writing this article.

I continue to be as unable to change as ever. However, since the day I realized why I could not change and what it takes to change, I hardly ever feel despair or self-hatred on this account. Hopefully this will help you out of you despair over not being able to change in spite of your best efforts.

One way of understanding our failure to change and what it takes to change is alluded to in the saying, "what you resist persists; where there is no resistance there is no persistence." All martial arts are based on this understanding. Rather than oppose a force, move with the force and step out of the way. When we oppose a force we add energy, but when we step as no energy is added and the energy dissipates.

Psychologically, this amounts to rejection or acceptance. Our rejection is resistance or opposing the force, while our acceptance is non-resistance, and therefore, adding no energy. This is the basis of Marcia Linehan's statement, "all radical change is based on radical acceptance". What a paradox!

Our desire to change comes from rejecting the way we are, rejecting what we are doing / failing to do, and rejecting what we are feeling / experiencing. This, paradoxically, makes change impossible. Resisting / rejecting our experience opposes it, adding energy to it, and making it chronic. However, if we were able to accept what we were feeling or experiencing and just "step aside", the energy would soon dissipate and the feeling / experience would pass.

When looked at developmentally, it is easy to see how acceptance helps children mature, learn and grow, while rejection hurts them and obstacles further growth. Why? Because when we feel safe and supported we naturally explore, learn, take risks and grow, but when we feel threatened we tense up, constrict, and withdrawal – not a good platform from which to learn and develop.

So why is acceptance so difficult? It may well be due to fear. I commonly hear the belief that acceptance would lead to passivity, and to lack of change. It is ironic that people do not register that their continued resistance and rejection have failed to bring about the desired change, so they persist in "doing the same thing expecting a different result" – Einstein's definition of insanity.

But for their fear of not changing, people may be quite ready to accept the way they are and what they are feeling / experiencing in the moment. I like to point out that they need not worry, as they are already stuck and not changing in spite of their best efforts.

I invite you to try accepting the way you are, your experience, your feelings just for a week, or even a day. You can always go back to rejecting, even though it is not helping you change.

If someone who has spent their life rejecting themselves and their experience were to accept themselves and their experience, even for a day, this would be a radical change.

It is an intriguing fact that "wrong-doing / wrong-feeling" can be repeated over and over with obviously disturbing results, but without loss of appeal. Guilt makes the "wrong-doing / wrong-feeling" seem real and punishment seem justified. Punishment but validates the "wrong-doing / wrong-feeling". So we get in an endless down, vicious cycle that leads to worse and worse feeling and worse and worse action. Hating yourself and feeling miserable are truly poor platforms from which to attempt change.

If you could change your point of view from one of "wrong-doing / wrong-feeling" to one of seeing your "flaws" as mistakes you would not repeat them. You're simply stop making the mistake. We do not repeat mistakes once we see them as mistakes, and mistakes never call for punishment, just for correction. It is wrong-doing that calls for punishment, not error.

However, even the smallest hint of guilt, lets you know that you have not really shifted perspective. You are still viewing what you are doing or feeling as "wrong-doing / wrong-feeling". Making a mistake may make you feel momentarily embarrassed, but never guilty. No change for the better is possible until you shift your perspective from "wrong-doing / wrong-feeling" to seeing that you are simply "making a mistake".

Tragically, I meet people all the time that mistakenly believe they need their guilt to keep them from doing bad things, failing to notice that their guilt not only fails in this but leads to the vicious cycle described above. I will never forget the day I deeply pondered living without guilt (I have not succeeded) only to run into my terror that without guilt I've become a violent, mad, unethical, corrupt, disloyal thief and cheat. I asked myself if I truly believed that without laws, morals, and ethics I'd become a mad man. I can not express the relief and freedom I felt when I realized that morals, ethics and laws do not stop humans in any event, and the reason I do not have this way is that I Do not want to.

Another barrier to change is our unconscious terror of never changing. I like to say that the fear you put behind you and refuse to look at comes back to haunt you, while fear that you stare down disappoints or becomes irrelevant. Being terrified, again, leads to fight, flight, freeze responses which offer a horrible platform from which to try to change and promote your natural learning and growth.

Getting past your worst fear involves coming to peace with the possibility of living out your worst fear. What is the worst that could happen if you never changed? Have you not been living with your unwanted, reviled "flaws" up to now? So what if you did continue living with them the rest of your life? You've managed live with the way you are up to now. Why could not you continue living this way, especially if you stopped apologizing yourself for "failing" to change? Is you self-criticism not the worst of it? What would your experience be if you no longer judged, or believe your judgments? Imagine this. Let it in. Take your time.

You may have noticed that I have been alluding to learning, growth, and development as the real source of change. Change by an act of will is unreliable at best and impossible at worst. True change, is based on development and learning. I am not talking about intellectual learning or adding information. I am talking about realization, insight, revelation or epiphany. These experiences change our level of understanding permanently, and when our understanding changes we change, that is, the way we are, what we do, and how we feel are different once we see things differently.

As I stated earlier, when we feel safe, supported, relaxed and at ease, we love to explore, take risks and learn. When we are at ease, our minds quiet down, and we are more open and receptive to new ideas and perspectives.

Thus, the key to change, learn, and grow is to feel safe. And safety can only come in a supportive, accepting environment. Guilt and punishment create a hostile, enabling environment that produce defensiveness, constriction and withdrawal – a poor platform from which to learn.

"In rejecting it you hold it to you, in accepting it you let it go." And when you let go, you let life grow. Happy changing !.