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New Year - a good time to give up trying to change! by Gill Wier

Posted 11 Jan '13 by Gill Wier

Yes, you did read that right – give up trying to change. What I’m suggesting is a completely alternative way to approach to making changes in your life – particularly if you want to change the way you are feeling.  When we experience negative emotions like depression or anxiety many of us react against these feelings and focus on trying to get rid of them.  All you want is to feel different, for these horrible feelings to go away right now so that you can feel normal again.  But often the more we try to avoid and push away these feelings, the stronger their hold over us becomes. 

I have found some useful answers to this dilemma in a book called “The Mindful Way through Depression.” The authors explain that when faced with emotional problems a “problem solving” way of thinking is actually counter-productive.  If we focus on the gap between where we are now (depressed) and where we want to be (happy) and this instantly creates more unhappiness. If we bombard ourselves with questions “Why am I feeling like this?  What’s wrong with me?  Why do I always get overwhelmed?” this self-critical thinking puts more pressure on our already over-tired minds and just makes us feel worse.  Anxiety and depression are often a symptom of being under stress in some way.  We need to allow our minds to rest but instead we are working them harder than ever.

Mindfulness is an approach which encourages a “being” state of mind as opposed to a “doing” state.    This approach seems counter intuitive at first as it requires that you stop fighting or pushing away your negative feelings and thoughts and instead simply notice them, acknowledge them, allow them to come and to go.  This new attitude takes practice but can have a profound impact on our ability to cope with negative emotions and ultimately change our feelings so that we feel calmer and more positive.

This all reminds me of a theory I learned about while training to be a counsellor. The “paradoxical theory of change” was developed by Arnold Beisser in 1970.  He states “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not”.  Instead of working to change ourselves we need to enter as fully as possible into all aspects of our own experience, bringing it into full awareness…and change will naturally follow.  This concept is paradoxical because it states that in order to change we need to give up trying to change!   I have seen this principle at work in the counselling room and have seen people experience real and lasting change when they begin to accept themselves and their emotions.

Paul David struggled with anxiety for 10 years until he discovered there was a different way to overcome it.  He is now fully recovered and runs a website to help others who are going through anxiety  In his book, “At Last A Life”, Paul describes how he used to spend all his time and energy fighting against his anxious feelings and trying to think his way out of anxiety.  The breakthrough came for him when a therapist told him “you will never get better until you stop trying to get better”.   He began to “move towards” his anxious feelings rather than pushing them away.  He decided to accept that he would feel anxious in certain situations but that he wouldn’t let the anxiety stop him from doing things any more.  Over time his anxious feelings subsided until he was fully recovered – an example of the paradoxical theory of change at work.

So if you want to change your negative thoughts and feelings I’d encourage you to experiment with an alternative approach in this New Year.  It may sound strange but just allow the feelings to be there – don’t fight them – and notice what sort of changes emerge.

Here are the details of the two books I’ve mentioned if you’d like to read more:

“At Last A Life: Anxiety and Panic Free” by Paul David

“The Mindful Way through Depression – Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness” by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn