Becoming more Rowan

Exploring the paradoxical theory of change

John Smith’s bio picture for Inexpertise 2018

American Psychiatrist Arnold Beisser once said “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not”.

He called this concept the paradoxical theory of change and it stopped me in my tracks when I first read it a few years ago.

He was saying that if we want to create change then we need to stop trying to change.

It fascinated me that someone who worked as a psychotherapist, and was therefore in the business of helping people to change, was rejecting the role of change agent!

He explained that “change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions”.

Becoming more Rowan

I have been experimenting with Beisser’s theory of change recently and the process has been exciting and scary-as-hell.

My dyslexia is a good example. Even though the impact on my learning was relatively mild, it still created challenges at school because what the education system expected of me was at odds with what I needed to thrive in my learning.

Without knowing it, I began to hide my differences and instead conformed to a style of learning that didn’t particularly suit me. I compensated by working extra hard but the results were usually more mediocre than amazing.

This continued into adult life and my first few jobs after University. I would compare what I was thinking with what I should be thinking and normally came to the conclusion that my opinions were less important.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to properly appreciate the way I think. I am starting to understand that dyslexia means my mind is configured differently, and difference in a world that wants to conform is not a bad thing. This means I started letting go of what I should be thinking and began to say what seemed obvious to me.

This process of starting to trust who I am has paradoxically changed the quality of my work which is becoming increasingly creative, insightful and valuable.

Backing the under-dog

I love the idea that change happens when we accept who we are — even if it’s not where we want to be.

It means letting go of who we think we and taking risks with what we are willing to discover about ourselves. And easy as that may sound, I can say from experience that it’s not an easy thing to do!

Gestalt Psychotherapist Fritz Perls describes it as an inner conflict that exists in each of us, between the the aware and controlling part of the ourselves which he described as the ‘top-dog’ and the spontaneous, impulsive or unaware part of ourselves that he called the ‘under-dog’.

The under-dog is created when we push something out of our awareness to protect ourselves. In my dyslexia example I had so suppress some parts of myself to help pass my exams. However this becomes problematic when the original reason for disowning a part of ourself no longer serves a purpose e.g. I left school but still continued to behave as if I should think in a particular way.

Over the last year I have been exploring this concept by uncovering the hidden parts of myself and bringing them into my awareness.

Stepping out from the shadows

The most potent method that I’ve discovered for becoming more Rowan is using theatrical masks as a tool for exploring the unknown parts of my personality.

I have been to several of Steve Chapman’s mask workshops and discovered parts of myself that are intriguing or even weird.

One ‘character’ that particularly fascinates me is a guy called John Smith who I wrote about in a previous blog. He is someone lurking within me that is uncooperative, sarcastic and bad tempered with the world. He represents a part of myself that is opposite to my self-identify which I like to think is warm, likeable and charming!

John Smith is a guy I want to understand better because I know hardly anything about him. Despite his rough edges, I want to bring him out from the shadows and see what he has to offer to the world.

So as an experiment John is going to take a very public platform later this year. He’s been selected among dozens of applications to give a presentation at Inexpert 2018. Which means he’s going to talk in front of a live camera and theatre full of people.

He wants to do this as a way of getting to know himself and for others to know him. But it’s anyones guess what will happen when he gets onstage! You can check out his speaking biography here.

Just thinking about this experiment invokes feelings of anxiety (and sometimes excitement) as I get to know John Smith and hopefully integrate a disowned part of myself.

Which is, paradoxically, why I want to do this. Because whoever I’m resisting is probably someone worth knowing about.


I am now using Beisser’s paradoxical theory of change in my work as an executive coach with CEOs, business directors and founders of fast growing enterprises. It can can also be used as a method when working with teams or culture change programs. For more information visit Made to Move.

A special thanks to Steve Chapman for inspiring this blog through our many conversations in 2017 and his amazing use of theatrical masks that helped to reveal John Smith.


Rowan Gray is the founder of Made to Move and a qualified executive coach who supports corporations to improve their performance, better understand team relationships and build resilience at the board level. He also work with high growth enterprises coaching them to move towards their vision and goals.