The Paradoxical Theory of change

Often, people come to a gestalt therapist with a great desire to analyze their own drawbacks and subsequently change themselves. The fact is that not everyone understands a simple truth: a person does not act like a clockwork, and no parts in it can be repaired. In order to overcome disappointment that arises after realizing these truths, the specialist must base his work on the paradoxical theory of change.

The paradoxical theory of change is a theory (in other translations it is the principle), developed by Arnold Beisser, whose close friend and colleague was the gestalt therapy founder Fritz Pearls. Its main postulate is the following: instead of baseless and ineffective attempts to change yourself, you need to absorb the whole volume of your own life experience, including even the unpleasant features of your own “self”.

When a new patient truly and deeply accepts himself, he makes a cardinal turn to a normal and healthy attitude towards himself (this formulation was derived by Frederick Pearls himself). It sounds paradoxical: you will change if you give up trying to change. Moreover, it is impossible to understand it at once, even together with the best gestalt therapist. The whole method of work in accordance with the paradoxical theory of change sounds quite difficult … Nevertheless, you must be aware that it is impossible to change yourself according to your dreams in a gestalt therapist’s office. Without this awareness, recovery and progress are impossible.

Many people who are not ready for work in the format of Gestalt therapy and who are not familiar with its theses, tend to react sharply to the specialist’s explanations about the need to renounce the desire for change. Therefore, in such circumstances it is impossible to work without explanations based on real situations. In order to achieve profound understanding of the theory’s essence, let us study a case from the author’s life and try to analyze the stages of its action.

Some facts about the author of paradoxical changes’ principle

When talking about the paradoxical theory of change, it is impossible to ignore its founder. His biography is the best example of the real efficiency of this gestalt theory. Arnold Beisser was a versatile and active young man: he practiced tennis on a professional level, he was a psychiatrist and associate of Frederick Pearls … But at the age of 25, Beisser suffered from polio. As a result, he was bedridden due to the leg muscles’ atrophy.

During first few years, the young man tried to restore the ability to walk. Nevertheless, training was inefficient, so Arnold fell into depression. The situation seemed hopeless.

However, finally Beisser got married and began working in a psychiatric clinic in California. He started as a remote worker but then managed to do real work in the office. What factors, except the persistent nature of Arnold, caused such a successful conclusion in a seemingly hopeless story? In many aspects, Arnold Beisser managed to return to his usual prosperous life due to the principles of his own research. These principles are stated in his article “The Paradoxical Theory of Change,” which has become the most quoted article among the modern gestalt therapists. What is the principle of the theory and why did it help Beisser to recover?

How does this theory work?

When a patient first comes to a psychologist, an informal verbal agreement arises between them. It determines the results of therapy that a person expects from a session or from a whole cycle of meetings. The patient cannot be blamed for too big expectations from working with a Gestalt therapist: he is “between the devil and the deep blue sea” (Pearls uses the terms “dog on top” and “dog in the bottom”). Most often, people who turn to specialists want the therapist to change their “self” in accordance with one of the inner ideals (usually patients hesitate between two strong tendencies: between an ideal “self” and a real “self” according to the patient’s personal subjective point of view). And the agreement becomes a fictitious way to control the situation.

These results, determined in the oral agreement with the therapist, will tell the person that time was not wasted. Most often, changes in the personal perception of the world really do occur. However, in almost every first case these changes differ from the planned ones.

Does this indicate the low level of professional competence of all existing psychologists or gestalt therapists? No. it does not. Changes in a person’s life and personality occur only when the person stops trying to reject his negative qualities. When he stops trying to deny himself, his past, his errors in world perception, disturbing thoughts or failures.

This phenomenon is called the paradoxical theory of changes by Arnold Beisser. However, general information is not enough to understand the principle of its work. We should be aware that people spend enormous time and energy on creating their ideal image in society. Formation of self-esteem based on the other people’s judgments leads to the creation of “white spots”. They are manifested in the fact the person may ignore his own negative features.

“The person may accept his softness, but may not be aware of his rigidity,” – as the author
of the book “Creative Processes in Gestalt Therapy” Joseph Zinker wisely notes. Therefore,
the patient must learn to see all the aspects of his “self” under the guidance of a specialist.
In addition, if you save yourself from this meaningless struggle for sympathy, a lot of energy
will be released. You can direct this extra energy to your real needs, in order to arrange
your reality and to create psychologically comfortable conditions.

You should not deny obvious things; self-acceptance requires great efforts and does not always happen on the first attempt. For example, if you, like Arnold Beisser, are not able to do your favorite things for some reason, you need to accept it together with the acceptance of other factors. It is important to realize and accept the fact that you are still eager to work at the dream office, together with the fact that you have not done enough efforts in order to achieve your goal. Thus, to accept yourself is to recognize existing internal or external contradictions, to reconcile conflicting thoughts and ideas. It is not an easy task. Without blaming yourself, you must dare to tell the truth about yourself and control the impulses of your dreams and ambitions.

As soon as you cope with this task (we do not advise you to study your aspirations on your own; only a professional gestalt therapist can carry out correct therapy according to the paradoxical theory of changes), you will get a significant motivation to move forward. You may even discover solutions to your problems. Immediately, an important detail should be explained: you cannot demand a ready solution from a gestalt therapist. Nobody knows for sure which solution will be the most suitable one for your own life. However, it is possible to ask for simple human advice if you have achieved complete mutual trust while working together.

Precisely due to the above-mentioned factors, an oral agreement with your gestalt therapist is likely to undergo multiple changes (it is possible to talk about their paradoxical nature). And this is the sense of all therapeutic work on the psychological methods of Arnold Beisser and Frederick Pearls. A person comes to a gestalt psychologist and asks for help in solving unsolvable problems. The psychologist shows the patient that the main people’s problems are rooted not in life circumstances, but in people’s attitude and refusal to accept the negative aspects of reality.

Concluding on the paradoxical theory of change by Arnold Beisser

However, we must mention that many processes of change and personal growth are impossible without the efforts of will. The theory of Arnold Beisser will be useful only for those who have tried all methods to achieve their aims. Let us recall an example from his biography. He proves that the theory of paradoxical changes can have maximal efficiency only in a hopeless situation, when your life no longer depends on your decisions and efforts (in direct meaning of these words).

First, you should try acting, and only then learn to accept yourself and your own actions under the guidance of a gestalt therapist. This process can be time consuming. However, it allows you to accumulate valuable energy in order to find the problem’s solution. You should also be ready that the final decision will differ a lot from the decision you have planned earlier. You must be very persistent in order to realize your own features and events of the past.

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