The Paradox of Change: why intellect alone is powerless to change oneself

Fight your feelings if you want, but you will lose.

You will lose because that small domain occupied by your conscious self is no match for the far larger more powerful unconscious self.

The good news is that one’s unconscious mind does not desire a fight, but rather peace. The trouble is that it is not interested in peace at the cheapest cost. The unconscious is a tireless keeper of truth—the most relentless type possible. It does not beg for the acceptance of one’s true self, it demands it like a jealous lover. If one refuses to feel certain emotions or give attention to the true suffering one experiences inside, the unconscious will make one experience them whether in dreams or in overwhelming feelings of depression, anxiety, or the like. The psyche knows that it only has peace when it’s entire being is in harmony, and that requires one to exist in their true self.

Many lament the fact that they cannot simply forget the truth about themselves and move on from their emotional pain, the pain of real life experiences (such as rejection, feelings of unworthiness, injustice, anger, insignificance, mourning, etc.). But the desire to simply forget and move on is something like an act of aggression against reality—a desire for the annihilation of one’s true self.

One is not pure intellect. One is, amongst other things, a total package of intellect, passions, and feelings. The desire to not feel the pain of one’s human existence is in essence the desire to not be human.

The beauty of being human, as opposed to a robot or a goldfish, is that there is a part of us that keeps the score; a part that does not allow us to remain false to what we actually feel. And this part—the unconscious—not only retains the real us, but demands that the real us is what is. It will not tolerate uninterrupted identification with one’s mask.

This is partly why we cannot change ourselves by a simple act of volition. Real change requires that one first step into what and who one actually is. Only then is one able to make changes by an act of will.

This is the true paradox of change: in order to change oneself one must first fully accept oneself as is. What one “is” is not merely what one thinks. This is the great delusion of Western thought since at least the time of Descartes (and possibly, if one follows Heidegger’s analysis, since the time of Plato). There is a long tradition of conceiving of oneself as essentially intellect; it is not surprising when one has difficulty conceiving of oneself differently.

There is no denying that one’s actual experience in life is far more than what goes on in the conscious logic and reasoning center of one’s brain. We experience life with our whole being, and our whole being feels life. This does not mean that one’s emotions are the truth about life, but rather the truth about our relationship to it. To deny one’s emotions requires one to also deny one’s body since every emotion is correlated to a bodily experience (like when one is sad and can feel it in his chest, or nervous and can feel it in his stomach). One might say that emotions use the body in tandem to communicate their reality.

Therefore, if a person is in the habit of avoiding or denying her emotions, she effectively closes herself off from her own body as well. In effect, the person becomes a “floating head”, a disembodied something. At a minimum, the person becomes something totally at odds with reality.

In a true twist of irony, the more one attempts to navigate life using only logic and reasoning is the less one is involved with the truth of one’s own life.

Living life as if one is pure reason is to live as a phantom. It is not possible to change a phantom because a phantom, by sheer fact of being a phantom, is not real. One can only change one’s true self, and the true self is the one located in the here-and-now and not what one will be in the future, or what one was in the past. I often tell clients that we cannot work with their phantasmal, ideal future self, nor can we work with their mythological past self. We can only work with the person sitting in the chair—the person who is the total aggregate of his or her self from birth to this very moment. I explain that the sooner they wrap their arms around their real self and accept it—warts and all—the sooner they get to change whatever they want.

I have a large metal sign hanging on my wall that reads, “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become” (Carl Jung). And I explain to my clients that this statement is absolutely true so long as they are working with their real self and not an imaginary self.

How does one get to the “real self”?

That question is what the entire venture of therapy is all about.

Indeed, contrary to what some might believe, it comprises a massive part of what Christianity is all about as well. I want to close with this thought as it is near and dear to my own experience. For those readers who are Christians and find themselves struggling with the notion of ‘accepting all of oneself—the good and the evil—prior to changing oneself’, let me explain this in terms of salvation. The salvation brought by the death and resurrection of Christ is appropriated to one’s whole self. It is not simply appropriated to one’s intellect, as in, attained by way of intellectual agreement to a list of divine propositions: Do you believe in Christ? “Yes.” Do you believe Christ died for your sins? “Yes.” Do you believe in the Republican party? “Yes” (kidding). Salvation is not just applied to one’s thinking but to one’s true self—to all that is good and all that is evil. This is why repentance is so critical in the salvific work. Repentance (true repentance) requires one to take a long, hard look at oneself and bring what is true about oneself before God. Otherwise repentance is not possible. Much of the function of the Church, pastoral ministry, divine Scripture, etc., is for this very purpose—to expose oneself to oneself, to help a person orient to his or her actual existence in the great journey of theosis. A great litmus test of inauthentic Christianity is the degree to which it encourages a person to avoid his or her actual self.

Thanks for reading.


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