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Mar 2015 by PCI College

The Right Change

As we settle into the rhythms and routines of 2015, Eoin Stephens, PCI College President reflects on the process and outcomes of change in our lives.

“Have you got the right change?”

A familiar phrase in the context of shopping, but at a deeper level of meaning getting the “right change” in our lives could be seen as one of the most important issues we all face. Indeed the work we do as counsellors/psychotherapists could be described as trying to find reliable ways to help clients get “the right change” to happen.

If you look back on the year gone by, for instance, how do you feel about the change that has/hasn’t happened in your life? 
Maybe you experienced very little change in the past year. And maybe that suits you, because you were happy with the way things are in your life. By and large you like your current job, living arrangements, lifestyle etc. – it’s not perfect, but you’re not highly motivated to change it.
Or maybe it doesn’t suit you at all, because you were hoping for change, perhaps even trying very hard to make it come about. You may have been seeking a new job, investigating possible career change, attending couples counselling, etc.

Or maybe there has been a lot of change, but not of the kind you wanted. Your partner left you out of the blue, you lost someone you love, you got a sideways move at work instead of a promotion.
Or if it was of the right kind, it may have been less than you wanted - there is just slightly less conflict in your marriage, you received a minor promotion at work, etc.
Or more than you wanted – you are swamped with new business, there’s never enough time to keep up with the new friends who have come into your life, the insights you are gaining from therapy are valuable but also a bit unsettling…
As clients, we go to therapy looking for some aspects of our lives to change and some to stay the same. The outcome may not necessarily be what we were hoping for…
Change is not that easily controllable, even in relation to ourselves, to say nothing of other people and our environment.
Even what we want in relation to change can change. When we are in a difficult situation (job, relationship, addiction, etc.) we want to get out of it. But once we are out for a while, and are no longer suffering the consequences of that challenging situation, we may want back in again…
Getting just the right change can be difficult.

How we adjust to this reality is an interesting question, philosophically, spiritually and from a counselling/psychotherapy perspective. Buddhism would suggest that change is the natural state of things, and this is echoed in many other schools of thought, from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus to modern physics and biology. It is also picked up by some counselling/psychotherapy approaches such as Gestalt Therapy, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, etc. These approaches encourage us to try reducing our tendency to resist and block natural change, as well as our more typical Western attempts to actively create change. The idea is that the right level and kind of change will only be able to emerge if we can get an appropriate balance between these ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ energies in our lives.

This paradox of trying versus accepting is well captured by the famous Serenity Prayer, originally written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and widely used by twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

This distinction struck me very strongly a number of years ago when I attended a seminar on eating disorders at a conference in the UK. The presenter made much of the distinction, as she understood it, between the terms ‘persistence’ and ‘perseverance’, words which are often seen as synonymous. If I remember rightly (it could have been the other way around), she used the term ‘persistence’ to describe the tendency (common in eating disorders, as well as in other mental health problems) to keep using a strategy long past the point where it was obvious that it wasn’t working. In contrast, she used the term ‘perseverance’ to point her eating disorder clients in the direction of the healthier possibility of learning to stick with a potentially useful strategy long enough for its benefits to become obvious (this is difficult for people trying to recover from eating disorders, as well as many other mental health issues, and indeed is difficult in relation to healthy change in general).

Sam Harris also talks about this “Paradox of Acceptance” in his most recent book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, when he says: “The paradox is that we can……live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves” (Kindle location 1977).

And one of the reasons this is true is that we may not really know what change is going to be right for us, except maybe in hindsight (and possibly not even then). I found myself saying recently that if the changes that happened to me over the past year or so had gone according to the plan I had in my mind, they would have been much less interesting and rewarding than the changes that actually came about – fortunately my attempts to write and direct the movie of my life were only partially successful!

As they say, beware of getting what you wish for…

Eoin Stephens, MIACP, MACI (March 2015)
PCI College President

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