Why It Might Look Like People Don't Change

04/02/2015 11:33 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015
Andy Roberts via Getty Images

It can look like people don't change. Or at the very least, like they don't change easily.

That's not true though.

We are capable of gigantic jumps in understanding; enormous leaps in consciousness that leave us feeling as if we're living a completely different life even when nothing externally has changed.

Of course, these leaps don't happen every day. That's part of why we discount our capacity for change. Another reason we don't see how change-capable we are is because we're looking in the wrong place.

Where We Look

Almost anyone who wants to change something about themselves looks toward their own psychology. They focus on their behaviors, they hone in on their inner dialogue, or they study their emotional life, including things like fear, confidence, and motivation.

When we look at our psychology, we're hoping to change our thoughts, behaviors, or feelings by examining them. We focus on the specifics of the problem as we see it in the hope of seeing something new in terms of a solution.

Sometimes we do see something new, and sometimes we don't. When we do see something, it's often along the lines of:

"Oh! I was seeing my social anxiety as abnormal and unique to me, but now I see that nearly everyone experiences some version of these feelings from time to time."

"A ha! I was telling a story of my life being full of trials and tribulations, but now I see that I can just as easily tell a story of resilience and triumph."

"Duh! When I told myself I had to exercise every day/never yell at my kids/always be happy, I was setting myself up for failure. Not needing to be perfect allows me to try more."

These types of insights can absolutely be enlightening. They can lead to permanent change in some area of your life, and they can help you break through an emotional or behavioral barrier you previously couldn't.

They often result in change along a horizontal plane--where the content of your thinking changes (i.e., you think x instead of y), some emotional reaction is changed (you feel x instead of y), or a specific behavior becomes more or less likely (you now do x instead of y).

Change along the horizontal plane is a little like buying a brand new house in the city in which you already live. There are lots of changes....when you're at home. You might feel a sense of excitement, like a new person for a short time...until you adjust to the new place.

But beyond the house, everything else is very familiar. Same post office, same grocery store, same streets and intersections. Life looks and feels the same in a global sense, but your immediate surroundings are different.

Horizontal change is often limited in its reach and it wears off in time.

The thing about horizontal change is that the things you're looking at (thought, feeling, and behavior) are essentially done and over by the time you look at them.

In other words, horizontal change looks at the past. It is you focusing on what is done, and making some adjustment from there.

It's easy to see why we'd conclude that lasting change isn't likely or easy when we're focused on horizontal change.

Vertical Change

Vertical change doesn't look at the problem. It doesn't involve examining what has already shown up in your experience (and hence, what is already done and over).

Vertical change is when we transcend the details of what we're thinking, feeling, or doing; it's when everything simply looks different.

Vertical change happens by insight, or a deep knowing.

Learning to ride a bike is something we learn in that deep way. Once you find your balance (which you can only find by feeling for it, not by talking about it or reading about it), you simply feel a new truth, in a sense.

You can still fall off the bike, but you're less likely to. You may still wobble a bit at first, but you regain your balance quickly. That deep knowing is never too far gone.

A vertical leap is one where you see something so deeply that you couldn't go back if you tried. It sticks with you and becomes part of how you see the world.

Both Types of Change

Human beings are designed to experience horizontal and vertical change, and we experience both regularly.

Perhaps the best thing you can do to invite more of the pervasive (but more elusive) vertical change into your life is to know that vertical change is always possible in the space before thought, feeling, and behavior.

Insightful, vertical change is before human psychology, before the brain, before what's already formed in the physical world. It resides in the spiritual realm; that place of infinite possibility--in the formless.

Look to that space. It's not about changing your thinking, feeling, or doing, but about allowing something bigger to change you. Although I know "look to that space" can sound vague, see if you can get a feel for that space.

You'll feel it when your thinking mind is quiet.

And rest assured that you will continue to enjoy horizontal and vertical change, in varying degrees, throughout your life. You are designed for it.

You might also check out this talk on horizontal vs. vertical change by Dr. George Pranksy. He says it better than I can.