On Change

On Change

Du musst dein Leben ändern, writes Rilke. You must change your life. Well, yes, Rainer. Of course. But how?

I spend a lot of time trying to change myself (and even more time trying to change other people, ideally those I love, just to make them a little bit better, because then everything will be perfect and I will be happy). My preferred methodology is to activate what a friend has called the surprising power of intention. I reflect, examine, analyse, plan and then I decide.

It’s quite an enjoyable activity, to be honest. And I also have to say that I’m fantastic at deciding. I have made thousands of decisions in my life, most of them excellent. I would actually go so far as to say that I’m probably one of the best deciders out there. Easily in the 10 best deciders in Hamburg, for sure.

So that’s good. What’s not so good is the bit where I have to carry out my decisions. That bit is trickier. It’s curious, isn’t it? We decide to do something and then don’t do it. As Rahi would say, zorry wot?

I’m not interested right now in analysing why this happens. Rather, what I want to do is share two beautiful and powerful ideas with you that may be helpful in making it happen a little less.


The first idea comes from Iris Murdoch. Notice, she says, what it is like to be in love - and what it is like to try not to be. Can you? Can you choose who to love and who not to? Can you talk yourself into loving Mary when really you love John?

Obviously you cannot. You can think of excellent reasons for loving Mary instead of John (Mary’s lovely, John’s awful), you can constantly rehearse those reasons to yourself, you can make powerpoint presentations of those reasons - but good luck actually loving Mary. You’re stuck with John, I’m afraid.

Having observed this, Murdoch makes the point that ‘where strong emotions of sexual love, or of hatred, resentment, or jealousy are concerned, ‘pure will’ can usually achieve little.’ Something else is needed. But what?

‘What is needed,’ says Murdoch, ‘is a reorientation which will provide an energy of a different kind, from a different source … Deliberately falling out of love is not a jump of the will, it is the acquiring of new objects of attention and thus of new energies as a result of refocusing.’

Murdoch means this as a general insight into how we change. Yes, she says, acts of will can matter, and there can be moments when they matter a lot. But on the whole, most of the time, acts of will are not how change happens. Rather, change happens through a change in how and what we see - we see different things, we attend to different things, and these new perceptions release new energy, and this new energy drives change.

So if we want to change ourselves, our decisions may be less important than we think. Intention may matter less than vision, and instead of training our willpower, perhaps we ought to be refining our vision.


The second idea comes from the American psychologist Carl Rogers. To describe it, let’s begin with a simple fact: No one goes to therapy because they feel fantastic and are psychologically perfectly well-adjusted. They go to therapy, as I went, because they are in trouble of some kind.

As a therapist, then, your job - and for Rogers, his vocation - is to help people get out of trouble. This requires that you help them change - if everything stays exactly the same, then why would the trouble go away? Which then raises the rather urgent question: what is the best way of helping people change?

Rogers says that after over 25 years of trying to help people challenge, he has learned something very important about what doesn’t help:

'It has gradually been driven home to me that I cannot be of help to this troubled person by means of any intellectual or training procedure. No approach which relies upon knowledge, upon training, upon the acceptance of something that is taught, is of any use.'

This shocks me. It contradicts about 98.7% of what I actually do when I try to change myself or other people. And here is a very experienced, very learned and very wise psychologist saying that my method is useless. What actually works, says Rogers, is something very different:

'If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur.'

What type of magical relationship is? It requires three things: genuineness, acceptance, and empathy.

For Rogers, being genuine requires rather a lot - it requires being aware of his own feelings, and expressing them to his patient, even when those feelings and attitudes aren’t complimentary or loving:

'It is only in this way that the relationship can have reality, and reality seems deeply important as a first condition. It is only by providing the genuine reality which is in me, that the other person can successfully seek for the reality in him.'

Moving on to acceptance, for Rogers to accept someone means having ‘a warm regard for him as a person of unconditional self-worth—of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings.’

The more you can do this, the more useful the relationship is to the other person in their attempt to change. Why?

Because, says Rogers, when you accept each aspect of a person, no matter what it is, no matter if it is different from what was there a second ago, if you just say yes to all of it, then

'this acceptance of each fluctuating aspect of this other person makes it for him a relationship of warmth and safety, and the safety of being liked and prized as a person seems a highly important element in a helping relationship.'

Finally, Rogers points out that ‘acceptance does not mean much until it involves understanding.’ And so the third condition of the helping relationship is ‘a continuing desire to understand—a sensitive empathy with each of the client’s feelings and communications as they seem to him at that moment.'

And this is crucial because when you fully accept someone, you give them the gift of freedom - the freedom 'to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of their inner and often buried experience without any kind of ‘moral or diagnostic evaluation’'.

In sum, then, the type of relationship that Rogers says is the only thing that helps people change, looks like this: You want to understand them from the inside, and you accept whatever is there, and you express what you feel about what is there.

Simple, really. But when I read it, I am struck by how far this is from my relationship with pretty much everyone in the world, including with the people I love. And most shockingly of all, I see how far it is from my relationship with myself.


I have told the story before of how I came to stop smoking. It is an extraordinary story and it has always baffled me. Murdoch and Rogers don’t dispel the mystery, but they do help me understand some of it. And perhaps they might help you too.