In the fall of my senior year at Harvey Mudd College, I spoke at a student panel called, appropriately enough, Students Speak. The purpose of the panel, which was organized by the Claremont Colleges Mental Health Alliance, was for students to share their experiences with mental health in order to work towards destigmatizing these important issues.
In the hope that the thoughts I have about my experience may be helpful to others, I have transcribed my segment of the panel below.
The Paradoxical Theory of Change
“I’m Radon. Just as a quick introduction, I’d like to talk briefly about my experience with anxiety and depression over the past few years, but I’d like to spend most of my time talking about what’s called the paradoxical theory of change, which is an organizing framework that helps me understand my experience and that some of my friends have told me was helpful for them to hear about as well in understanding their experiences. And there’s a lot of other things I could talk about, like health insurance and therapy and connecting with friends, and also my experience on the autism spectrum. I’d love to talk about any of those things with any of you afterwards or in Q&A, but right now I’d like to focus on a small part of my experience which I think stands well on its own. So in terms of content warnings, again, I’ll be talking about mild anxiety and depression and negative self-talk.
So when I was in high school, I had this one phase where I talked a lot about the importance of personal development, and I watched a TED Talk every morning. And, before you ask, yes, I was slightly insufferable at that age. But when I watched these TED Talks, I saw these people talking a lot about overcoming adversity, including mental illness, and it was very inspiring. And I had this thought, which to this day I think is the most ironic thought I’ve ever had in my entire life, which was: I’m so lucky because I don’t have any adversity in my life. I’m just normal. And this is ironic on the one hand because of course now I’m up here talking about my mental health experience, but also because normal is just an illusion. There are a thousand different ways that you can be labeled as normal or not by our society, and if you manage to qualify as normal along all of them, then that’s actually extremely surprising. So I think what’s really normal is to be abnormal. But it’s easy to ignore that, and I think that’s basically what I did, until I wasn’t able to anymore.
So when I was in my second semester at Harvey Mudd, I took what I think any reasonable person ought to call way too many classes. (This is not an uncommon problem at Harvey Mudd, or at any of our institutions.) And I never had any trouble in high school with doing the maximum possible amount of work that would fit into my schedule, but something changed that semester. And over time I noticed that I just was not enjoying any of the things that I did anymore. I could point to these specific periods of over a month when I didn’t really have any experiences that I could describe as joyful. Like, literally, I had this mood tracker program that I used to collect the data. I can point to specific periods of over a month.
And I mean, I did things that I enjoyed, kind of, sort of, ish. But when I did them, there was always this kind of shadow of this sort of emptiness which told me: well, this is all ultimately pointless because you’re never going to really be happy, and if you think that you were in the past, you’re probably just misremembering, because fundamentally, you’re just not good enough to be happy. So why bother? And of course this feeling didn’t actually speak to me. I just felt miserable all the time for no discernible reason as far as I could tell.
Now at the time, I just figured, well, this is just because I’m doing too much work, which of course I was. But then when I finally finished that semester and I didn’t have any more work to do, I felt even worse, and that was when I became seriously concerned.
Now when I was visiting my doctor at home about a year later, I told her that I had depression, and she said, well, do you have any symptoms of anxiety as well? To which I first thought, I have no idea – nobody ever asked me that before! Followed immediately by, uh oh. Because, in fact, yes, in all sorts of everyday situations, like for example deciding where to sit at lunch or deciding what order to do my homework in, my throat would get dry, and I would have trouble concentrating, and I would have this great difficulty making these trivial decisions that couldn’t possibly affect my life in any meaningful way. And then afterwards, I would feel miserable no matter what I picked, and I would be distracted by all the potential consequences of my trivial decision. And I would also have this sort of general dread in the background about my alleged ability to accomplish anything useful whatsoever.
And so I spent a couple of years putting a lot of effort into everything that I could possibly think of to try to get better. And there’s a lot to say there, but as I said, I want to talk primarily about an idea called the paradoxical theory of change, which is the closest thing I can find to a unifying principle for the things that I’ve learned and the things that help me today live in my brain on a day-to-day basis.
So I’d like to start with a motivating example. So let’s say I’m up late in my room, probably a lot later than I was anticipating, watching YouTube videos with no particular educational content. This may or may not be a situation that some of you can relate to. And so I think to myself, I should really go to sleep.
But then I think, but what if I just do five more minutes? And then of course this turns into ten more minutes, and then fifteen more minutes, and what I’m thinking to myself is: I’m really going to regret this tomorrow. If I’m staying up late, it should at least because I have, like, some homework to do, or something. This seems to be a pretty dumb decision that I’m making right now. Why am I never able to just do this? What’s wrong with me? And so on.
And what’s remarkable here is that the more effort I put into these mental gymnastics to try to convince myself to change my behavior, the more I completely fail to effect any change whatsoever. And eventually, I do get to sleep, but it feels like a defeat every time.
And so I think about this pattern of behavior in the context of a psychological concept called the paradoxical theory of change, which I’m very grateful to my therapist for introducing me to (along with many other things I’m very grateful to my therapist for introducing me to). And the basic idea with this theory is that the best way to make changes is to first accept things the way they are. And this conflict is why it’s called the paradoxical theory of change and not the obvious theory of change.
And another way to put this is a quote that I found from the psychiatrist Arnold Beisser, who said: “The premise [of this theory] is that one must stand in one place in order to have firm footing to move, and that it is difficult or impossible to move without this footing.” And I know this might sound kind of wishy-washy or clichéd – I mean, we hear this kind of thing all the time – which is why I was so surprised to find that it was so useful and illuminating in a very practical sense for our mental health experiences. So let me give you a few examples to illustrate what I mean in my experience.
So firstly, when I’m anxious or depressed, what I feel is a lack of control. And because I want to feel fine – I want to be able to just get on with my work and my life – I’ll try taking a break, or journaling, or something, because I know that’s what you’re supposed to do and I know that helps. But the problem is that fundamentally, I don’t want to accept that in fact I’m not okay at that moment, and I want to believe that I have this ability to magically change the way that my brain works, and that if I were to make just the right choices, then everything would get better right away. And this means implicitly of course that if I don’t make all the right choices, then everything is going to fall apart.
But the irony is that by grasping at this illusion of total control, I’m just setting myself up for failure, and I’m filling my brain with more of these negative thoughts that make my anxiety and my depression worse. Things like, if only you were good enough, you could have the control that you need, and everything would be perfect. But you aren’t.
So nowadays, what I try to do instead is, whenever I feel anxious or depressed, I try to say to myself, usually out loud, it’s okay to feel this way sometimes. It’s okay to not be okay all the time. And then I move on. And maybe I do take a break, or journal, or do something else that helps sometimes. Because I do care about getting better. It’s very important. But I don’t treat it like this life-or-death stratagem that has to work. And amazingly, just this change of perspective is remarkable in how much of a difference it makes in how long it takes me to recover from these feelings.
So here’s another case study, if you will. Many of my friends would describe me as a to-do list fanatic or a calendar architect. And these tools really do let me get work done better – like, they really do. But sometimes, they can go a little too far. For example, last year I went through this one phase where my to-do list had more than 1,000 separate entries on it, arranged in sub-lists that were seven or eight deep, with all of these checklists and deadlines and priorities and task dependencies.
And I was definitely getting a lot work done, but somehow I was never very happy or satisfied with any of it. And in retrospect, the problem, I think, was that I just didn’t want to accept the fact that in fact there’s no such thing as perfect time management. And I only made real progress on getting things done and feeling good about them once I started to trust myself to make these decisions about time management without this huge system, and once I accepted that it was okay for these decisions to be imperfect.
And so here’s a last example. We hear all the time that the perfect is the enemy of the good. And I think that this is a really accurate viewpoint according to the paradoxical theory of change. So when I write, for example when I was writing this speech, I am very tempted to try and write things perfectly the first time. But if I try to do this, then even if I get started, eventually I always get stuck, and then I just kind of go around in anxious circles for arbitrarily long until I stop. And what I need to do is start with something that is, frankly, rather mediocre, and then go back and improve it later. And refusing to accept that, at the very beginning, mediocre is where I am – that’s what I can write right at that moment – if I don’t accept that, then paradoxically, I’m never going to be able to go back and move to a higher standard later.
And I could go on, because I see this pattern basically everywhere in my life. I actually had, in a previous draft, at least twelve ideas for examples here. It’s surprisingly applicable. But unfortunately we don’t have the time, so what I want to say in summary is that I can tell this story very clearly after the fact, now, but at the time I spent years trying to figure out what was going on for me, and failing. And so if you don’t know right now why your brain is doing the things that it’s doing, that’s not something you have to be ashamed of. It’s extremely difficult to figure this stuff out, which is why good mental health care is so very important.
And everyone has different things going on for them, so it’s not like my ideas are going to be helpful for everyone, or vice versa. So what I’m trying to say is, if what works for you is something different, then do that. And if you don’t know yet what works for you, then just keep looking, because it’s so important. And if you’re not sure where to look, then ask a friend, because I would never be where I am now if it weren’t for the support of so many wonderful people in my community. And just taking that step to be open with another person, I think, makes such a wonderful positive difference in the world. The last few years for me were 100% not what I was expecting out of my college experience based on my perspective in high school, but, looking back, I am always going to be so grateful that they brought me here, eventually, to talk to you tonight. Thank you.