“I Wish Things could be Different”

Is your life the way you want it to be?
How do you get things the way you want them?

Everyone has problems and some last for longer periods than others. Why is this the case. Why are some problems more complicated than others? Some complex problems can be solved quickly, while other even well-defined problems just don’t get solved. This short essay looks into the theory of second-order change (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974).

Lets start with a simple example as follows.

A husband and wife are arguing over directions to a certain shopping centre. The wife says she cannot go to that particular shop as she does not know the route. The husband gets upset with her and says he will tell her the route. The wife says no I’ll get lost. They agree to disagree. The husband is annoyed because he has heard his wife say this many times. The wife would like to go to that shopping centre but has decided that she will just leave it, as the possibility of getting lost is not worth the benefit of the different shopping centre.

Some key features can be highlighted from this first example.
Firstly, both parties want a change but no change occurs. The wife does want to go to the shopping centre and the husband wants his wife to try new routes without fear. Secondly, the wife has certain expectations about the change that she does not want to experience. There is an element of the unknown in the change, which may be unsettling for her. The husband does not offer an alternative solution that may bridge the gap to create a change, and he too does not get what he wants.

In terms of this simple example, it is clear that unless the wife does at some point try a route to that particular shop, she wont be able to shop there independently. Now, it is also clear that the wife had certain assumptions about the route that frightened her. This is probably from past experience and it is amazing how past learning effects future behavior. Do you think it is fair to paint this situation with the same brush that was used in the past. In terms of relationships, isn’t it annoying when someone paints you with a stereotyped brush [which in effect only tells you about that person’s past experience rather than your experience]. It is likely that she had been lost before to such a degree that it has had a lasting effect. It could also be that she is not good with following directions or she has a fear of something that we do not know. There could be infinitely many reasons as to why she has anxiety about trying this new route and thus there are so many reasons for her refusal to change. The wife’s thinking is logical. Stick with what she knows and then there will be no getting lost. Also, if one has had a bad experience in the past then of course one should learn from that and apply that for future. Thus, the first question I would ask is if she really does want to go that new shop? There is no point trying to create change with someone who does not really want it. Many people just talk about change but are actually fine with things the way they are. Now the title of this essay was “I wish things would be different”. Thus, I am assuming that change is required. Lets try get a situation together whereby change is the next logical step.
After ascertaining that she would like a change, I would then try to get information as to the context of her current status quo. Questions such as “how did you learn your current routes?”; “when was the last time you were lost?”; “if your husband was stranded at that shop and needed you to fetch him, would you be able to do that for him?”; “what comes to mind when you think about trying a new route?”; “do you think you are physically capable of trying a new route?” etc. These questions are focused on history, beliefs and values. Deconstructing the story and context to obtain history and genesis as Derrida would say (Derrida & Caputo, 1997). Most obstacles are perceptually based owing to “faulty beliefs”.
The next area I would look at is the assumptions which are made but not stated. She is worried about getting lost. What then, what happens if one gets lost, are they lost forever? What underlying beliefs are at play that is stopping her from seeing things differently. Logic often goes out the window and that may not be a bad thing. Just as how illogical some of her answers may be, lets use that same illogical stance to create new thinking. Remember it was the logical thinking that may too be a problem, such as getting lost and thus not trying something new etc as discussed. Using illogical thinking now, earlier we found out that she was worried about getting lost and that it has happened in the past, so its logical to assume that she may get lost again. So what would illogical thinking be then for this story? Maybe that she will get lost for every new route that she takes from here forward, and for the routes she already knows! This is crazy thinking, but this is exactly what may help. To create a real change, creative new thinking is required. Why you may ask. Well, lets take the example about getting lost. This dilemma may have been a problem to this couple for many years. She may have tried many new things to stop getting lost such as maps, following people and so on. Whatever the case, if the problem has been there for some time, then whatever was tried before seems to have not worked. If logic was applied before then that too didn’t seem to work. Sometimes the very thing that is required is the most remote or obsolete thing to do.
Using Watzlawick’s (1974) example to explain the issue of logical thinking goes as follows. A person is in their car, what happens if you want to slow down? Reduce pressure of accelerator and press the brake, thus less pressure on accelerator equals reduced speed. What happens if you want to increase speed? The driver simply presses the accelerator down harder. So more pressure on accelerator pedal equals more speed. Now if the driver wants to go even faster, he needs to do an illogical thing; take his foot off the accelerator. So in effect he will slow down as less pedal pressure equals lower speed. He needs to release the gas pedal which equates to slowing down in order to change gear, or else he will just over-rev the engine. So to go faster he needs to first slow down a bit and then change gear and then increase the accelerator pressure after that. If no gear is changed the engine will eventually burn out. Thus, if the driver wanted to go faster he would give more gas and a limit would be reached. Any further gas would just over-rev the engine and thus the rule needed to be changed. This is where a lot people get stuck, no pun intended. They keep trying the same action, following the same set of rules, applying the same logic, only to get the same result over and over again. And its not for lack of effort. Many people feel exhausted in how much effort they have put into trying to change their current situation. The issue is that for many problems, applying the same solution only gives the same problem or may create new problems. You may say that you have tried so many things and still no happy solution. The point is that sometimes the very solution becomes the problem (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974). The solution to the car speed problem was initially to just give the engine more gas [first rule]. However if you continue with that solution indefinitely, it will become a problem when your engine burns out. Making a change [and changing the rules and boundaries of the problem] takes time and effort and sometimes while going through the process, we are tested and want to revert back to what we know rather than trying something new.

From a neurological perspective, change requires a change in behaving. A change in behaviour is synonymous with a change in thinking. A change in thinking means a change in neurological behaviour. Thinking is a function of neural pathways. A change in neurological behaviour is synonymous with structure and function. Different thinking means different neural pathways working to create new behaviours and visa versa. These neural pathways are available through experience and learning and thus this is a circular interaction. For example, if you want to design and create a new device, say a clock radio, you would have to have the neurological basis for this. This means that at some point in your life you would have had to have learnt about electronics, radio engineering and so on, which allowed for neural pathways to be arranged that represent this learning within your brain. Your brain then can interpret and make sense of the clock radio you are designing and building. A specialist surgeon needs to have the capacity to perform complex operations, while an artist needs to have the neurological ability to create an artwork. In the same way a computer needs software to run specific functions for you, your brain needs to be “wired” for certain behaviours. There needs to exist a framework available to you for these behaviours. Learning is critical in this process, whether its self driven or an environmental trigger, new behaviours can occur when new thinking is initiated. It is easy to take this for granted. Watching a baby learning how to cope in their environment reminds us how much learning takes place throughout our lives. Without this learning, how do we do the activities that we do?
The diagram below shows the circular process including environmental perturbations.

Figure 1.1
Repetition improves task ability. We see this in the learning process. Generally speaking, the more repetition and experience in the task, the greater the ability. The neural pathways become more defined as they fire together [the common saying, neurons that fire together wire together] and the process may become faster and clearer.

Getting back to the case example. If the wife chooses not create a new way of thinking, she effectively re-learns her current status-quo of not trying new routes owing to her reasons. She is then actually strengthening this behaviour and thus reinforces her neurological pathways surrounding this problem. If the husband continues to behave in the same way, he too will not realise a change. In order for either party to start to generate a change, either a change in behaviour or thinking is required. If for example, the husband changed his stance towards his wife, possibly joining her in her dilemma by becoming a co-author, this means he shares this now with her. He can offer to sit in the passenger seat while she drives and thus if she gets lost he is there to “un-lose” her. The wife could reframe her problem and see it differently now. Her current framing is “I don’t want to try a new route as I may get lost”. When she thinks of this, all the feelings associated with that problem frame come with it. Maybe she could change her framing of the problem. It is common for people who fear getting lost to also fear being lost and alone. Thus, if the person was lost with another adult who was good at navigation, the intensity of the fear may be somewhat reduced. Thus, if the husband offers to sit with his wife for two consecutive trips and navigate her, she may well agree [1]. The wife has the ability to learn new routes and can from the two guided attempts, learn the route and feel confident of these new routes. She can then later travel them alone. If the problem is reframed in a more specific way it would be “I don’t like to try new routes when I am alone as I fear I may get lost”. Now suddenly the problem has reduced considerably. For this couple, the husband could spend time with his wife on her learning new routes and thereafter she will be able to do it on her own as it is no longer a new route. As she thinks about the problem differently, different emotions will felt as different neural pathways are incorporated. Also, as she learns the new route a new behaviour is generated and change is occurring.
t is not possible to blanket all cases of fear and reframing is person and problem sensitive.

Does this mean that all change only takes place when people help each other to change? In this case, both parties had a problem and required a change and thus action was required from both. It is also true that if the wife suddenly just dropped her fear of new routes the problem would go away for both without the husband doing anything, possible but spontaneous change I believe is rare.

A change in language exhibits a change in the experience; for reality can only be experienced, and the “reality” experienced is intermeshed in the thoughts of the structure of understanding (Becvar & Becvar, 2006).

[1] This may seem annoying and time consuming, but in many relationships its about what is easier in the long term. Yes, it takes more initial effort to sit with someone for every new route, but it takes a lot more effort arguing about this problem for a lifetime of marriage. Once new behaviours are initiated, even more behaviours can be generated, and thus this solution could be seen as a starting point.

Becvar D.S., & Becvar, R.J. (2006). Family therapy: A systemic integration. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Derrida, J. & Caputo, J. D.  (1997). Deconstruction in a nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida. Fordham    University Press
Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J.H., & Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: Norton

Written by
P. Baron (June 2009)