Change happens when you stop trying

All humans face the pain of our imperfection. We are flawed and we don’t like it. Above all we want to avoid our flaws being visible. We try very hard to suppress them and change, yet no-one notices.

Posted - 13th March 2019

All humans face the pain of our imperfection. We are flawed and we don’t like it. Above all we want to avoid our flaws being visible. We try very hard to suppress them and change, yet no-one notices. We get disheartened and frustrated. We give up. If we are really lucky, someone presents us with a really compelling reason to keep going. And yet, even the most enormous effort hasn’t paid off so far. There is the nub of the problem. Trying to change often gets in the way of just changing. I’ve learned two really key messages about the process of change.

Lesson 1: Change happens because we are able to perceive the world differently. If we didn’t, we couldn’t change. But our perception changes in quiet ways, usually when we aren’t looking. It’s like that elusive word, on the tip of our tongue when we search for it, but presenting itself when we stop looking. The same thing happens with change. It needs time to sit in the unconscious and work unseen and unspoken. There is a quiet, still place in each of us that holds the capacity to shift and then the change is on its way. Most of us reach for our ‘to do’ list, planning change actions as if we could force ourselves to do it differently. And for some people that’s possible. But deep personal change doesn’t usually work like that.

Lesson 2: Change happens when we have the courage and self-kindness to make friends with our flaws and see them as our teacher. Suppressing them is the surest way to keep them. Sitting with the discomfort, pain, sadness or aggravation of our flaws is our data, our opportunity for insight. It is the most powerful tool for change.  Self-insight comes with the ability to stay with these feelings and watch how they work. It is the observing, the noticing and the perceiving of them in new ways that provides the seed and the momentum for change. A committed, gentle, precise attention to what is happening can mysteriously make room for something new.

How about an example. An ambitious, successful client with a cutting intellect and an uncompromising analytical focus was frustrated at an inability to achieve promotion. Over the years, people dismissed her as unempathic and selfish, which she described as ambitious and single-minded. This had been key to her success and although she wanted people to see her differently, she couldn’t really see how to change them. In the course of our work, she moved from stuck frustration to curious inquiry, which I admired. I was open in my admiration and we built some trust as she started on a long journey together.

She wanted to change others’ view of her, since it wasn’t the view she had of herself. And there it was. I saw her empathy and warmth and, in wondering why this was not how others saw her, we had the seeds of new perception and a new reality. If she couldn’t force change to happen with intense cognitive analysis and a plan of action, perhaps allowing it to creep up on her would be worth an experiment.

The moment she agreed she would stop trying she began to slow down and observe. She chose two things to watch over the course of a month. The insight that comes from simply noticing, emerged without effort. There was nothing to do, no action, no task list. Just quiet, intentional observation. Nothing else.

A few sessions in, she had already seen a difference in her responses to others. She began to find a lighter, more humorous touch that softened the tough, uncompromising edge and made her easier to be with. She started to see her ambition for what it was and found it shifting; her urgency was blended with a sense of inquiry about what she wanted from life. Her inner awareness was translating to an outer discernment that slowed her down and made her ask more questions. Her sharp mind was supported with a new understanding of her own inner process. The world started to look a bit different. She was looking at herself from a new angle; imperceptibly, quietly and without fanfare. She didn’t try to change herself. She allowed herself to feel what was needed.

She changed.

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