How to change by not changing at all

Margaret Thatcher was the UK’s Prime Minister from 1979 – 1990. In her party’s October 1980 conference, she said: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!” She was hitting back at those who wanted to force her hand, to get her to change her mind. She stood firm, despite the concern that the policies she advocated might negatively impact the economy and peoples’ livelihoods. 

Today I want to do the opposite of a “Maggie.” I want to announce a wholehearted, complete and utter U-turn. This lady is definitely for turning. So, what’s prompting my public about-turn? I’ve changed my mind and I want to share why.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the paradox of choice. In lockdown I’ve been staying close to home and in blogging I’m staying close to my topics. I’m moving sideways from a paradox of choice to a paradox of change. We don’t need to travel far to see things differently: a topic Xavier de Maistre wrote about in 1794 in “Voyage autour de ma chambre” (Voyage around my room). 

On my own meandering journey through the landscape of the internet I came across a psychotherapist called Simon Stafford Townsend. He writes about Gestalt psychotherapy and its central ideas. I found his style welcoming and easy and wound-up reading all of his website in one go. One of the things that stood out was his explanation on the paradox of change. It’s one of the central tenets of Gestalt psychotherapy and this is how it goes: the more we try to change, the more we stay stuck where we are. Stafford Townsend clarifies it like this: “we can’t truly change until we accept who we already are.”

Those of you with your hands up at the front of the class will take me to task. I wrote a blog a few weeks ago called Waking up from Unmindfulness and with my teacher hat on I ended it like this: “It’s not comfortable, but how can we change without changing?”

I take it back. Completely. 

Gestalt psychotherapy says the only way to change is by staying exactly as we are. We need to accept what we have now. We need to accept how we got to now. We need to yield to who we are, not fret about who we want to be. We can’t cut out/hive off/ignore our rotten bits and move forward with only the ones we like. We need to sail through our lives with it all our sails intact. 

Back in 1970 Arnold Beisser wrote this about Gestalt Psychotherapy. “Change can occur when the patient abandons, at least for the moment, what he would like to become and attempts to be what he is.” Beisser says that we need to stand still so we can be more stable. “It is difficult or impossible to move without that footing.” 

But it’s hard to stop our desire to be a better version of ourselves. To be someone else. We read a self-help book, turn to coaching or therapy, because we want to change or because we’re uncomfortable in our own skin. We want to move away from our sadness, anger, frustration and become a new us. A sorted, happy, relaxed version of ourselves. The last thing we want is to accept who we are right now. 

But this is exactly what we have to do. Make friends with ourselves, warts and all. Only then can we give ourselves the foundation, the strength to move on to be our future selves. This might seem demotivating. “Accept myself for everything that I am? The bits I dislike, the bits that shame or disgust me?” Actually yes.

In fully accepting our current selves we’re also offering ourselves a gift – of choice. This is what Stafford Townsend says: “This is one of the aspects of Gestalt I love the most because it is fundamentally about freedom; the freedom to be who you are, and to become whoever you need to be.”

So, let’s all make a U-turn. Let’s turn back to ourselves and welcome who we are. Let’s press pause on wanting to change, press pause on wanting to be someone else. 


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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