The Paradox of Change
“Change is the only constant.” That phrase stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it. I imagine that it caught my eye because I spend my life facilitating change so it is my passion, but more importantly, it had the deep ring of truth. “Change is the only constant.” The kind of truth that settles inside with a deep “yes.” It was Isaac Asminov, a favorite author, who introduced me to the phrase, but its origins come from Herakleitos of Ephesus. He was a Greek philosopher known for expounding the doctrine that change is central to the nature of universe. The original Greek, Πάντα ῥεῖκαὶοὐδὲν μένει,
is translated several ways: “everything flows and nothing stands still,” “nothing endures but change”
and,“change alone is unchanging.”
The idea plays on you from subtly different directions.
It is deep truth to be sure, but nevertheless we humans resist it, and resist it mightily. We have according to Harvard’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, “an immunity to change.” I spoke of their book by the same title in my previous newsletter. It is the “immunity” they speak of, stemming in part from the way we shape the habits of our brain that must be overcome if we are to develop and grow. The modern quest for overcoming our aversion to change has been going on for many years.
As I young graduate student in psychology I was introduced to the “paradox of change” by a professor paraphrasing Carl Rogers. Rogers famously said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” My professor said it more succinctly. “You have to be where you are before you can be somewhere else!” That concept has served as a guiding light for me as I’ve worked with people over these many years.
It’s simply true that a lack of self-acceptance is a major factor, in fact the
major factor, in our immunity to change. Here’s why: when we envision a change we want to make in life, we want to be different. Inherent in the desire to change is a negative evaluation of where we are now. While on the face of it that may not seem to be a problem, it becomes one because most of us aren’t capable of a neutral self-assessment. Instead we are quite self-critical, brutal really, when you think about it. This sets up an internal dynamic that virtually ensures change will not occur.
Let’s look at an example. Say you want to lose weight. A neutral evaluation indicates it is a good idea. You’ve put on pounds, your clothes don’t fit, your energy level is down, and so losing weight makes a lot of sense. But for most, that neutral evaluation turns nasty. Does any of this sound familiar? “You look like hell. Why can’t you stay away from the (fill in the blank, mine is French fries). If you’d only get up and do some exercise instead of lying around maybe then you’d make progress. No one is attracted to people who look like you.”
Mmmm . . . Take a minute to consider the tenor of your internal conversation.
Now let’s imagine what’s going on inside as the self-criticism rains down. Within you there is a part that wants to change, has tried to change, and has not produced change. That part needs support, not criticism. At some point it will respond to the typical negative diatribe with a “screw you.” Can’t you just see it, one part of you shaking that critical index finger like the schoolmarms of old, and the other part responding with a wave of the classic middle finger? This is the traditional stalemate, an internal war of the worlds between the part that’s trying to change and the part that’s criticizing. Ironically, both are thinking what they are doing will result in change and yet nothing happens.
I wonder if you have the look of recognition on your face that I’ve seen on so many as I describe the role self-criticism plays in failure to change. Granted, there is something counterintuitive about supporting oneself when your previous efforts have not produced change. We are afraid that without the prodding, self-critical voice, nothing will happen.
Years of experience tell me it’s not true. The truth is that Rogers was right, accepting yourself where you are - neutrally, without judgment – is the first step in moving toward change. Sound ridiculous? Has the other way worked? Try it. Feel free to download the free practice called “The Language of Love”
on my website. I wrote it to help you get started.