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How Change Can Happen:
Growth toward Wholeness or Addictive Response

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by Ann Marie Wyrsch

As a graduate student at Rutgers in the mid-70s I was privileged to be mentored by Dr. Hildegard Peplau, a pioneer in Psychiatric Nursing. She taught us how to write an “operational definition,” a valuable skill for fostering mental and spiritual health. The value of an operational definition is that we can see exactly where we are at any step in a process and increase our freedom to consciously choose the next step.

Many years later I learned BioSpiritual Focusing from Fathers Ed McMahon and Peter Campbell. Focusing was first described by Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago. Over a period of time, in an attempt to demonstrate the steps that occur, and how they fit together, an operational definition unfolded as a diagram. The diagram, entitled “How Change Can Happen,” is an attempt to define operationally how we can grow healthier mentally and spiritually – or continue on a downward spiral of living more and more without choice. I’ve used this to introduce people to Focusing and to assist them to see where they are in the process. It works especially well for people who benefit from being able to have a visual picture.

Here is the diagram and a description of steps leading to growth toward wholeness or to the addictive response.


Any event, whether pleasant or unpleasant, can generate anxiety. The same event can lead either to growth or to an addictive response.

The Operational Definition for Growth demonstrates steps that can be helpful. These steps include:

Pause and take a breath in order to recognize anxiety and/or stay conscious. Pay attention inside – gently and objectively notice: what is happening outside; how does what is happening feel in your body; what you are thinking and what you're telling yourself.

Acknowledge whatever you find without judging and/or trying to understand or fix it. You can like it or not like it and still accept what is already there.

Simply stay with what is there as long as it feels right to do so, noticing if something comes that connects or resonates with it. Be willing to allow God's grace to touch it – what unfolds is not up to you – it is gift!

Resonate what you have learned from your body's wisdom (which is connected to the larger body – your source of life within) with what your head brain tells you. Choose a course of action or inaction, based on having listened to your head brain and your body brain.

Live Consciously and Choicefully
Expectations and behaviors remain flexible. They are revised by being present to ever-changing reality.

Thus with each experience, there is a fresh and creative response. The person experiences the next event ever more consciously and choicefully. There can be an ongoing cycle of growth toward wholeness.

The Operational Definition for Addictive Response demonstrates what can occur if what the person does is:

Act Automatically
Act with no awareness of anxiety or paying attention inside. Ignore or negate objective events, body response and thoughts. Do something that relieves the anxiety.

Experience Relief of Anxiety
Feelings and body sensations are “stuffed” (out of awareness). Thought patterns become more entrenched and automatic. Freedom and congruence are lost.

Live on “Automatic Pilot”
A complex grid of habits and expectations are locked in. New experiences are filtered through them. Habits and expectations are stored in “structure bound” form and not readily available for revision. The person becomes more and more out of touch with inner, and often outer, reality. The downward spiral into more addictive behavior continues.

Both cycles are ongoing and ever deepening. It is possible at any time to become more aware of anxiety and to choose to follow the growth cycle.

The operational definition makes it possible to assess where one is, or where difficulty occurs, in the above process and then find ways to experience the missing component. Then what is needed is practice, practice, and more practice.

This diagram can assist an individual to become more aware of how they are participating in the everyday events of living, and to investigate how they are responding. It illustrates that the growth process consists of an active part and a receptive part, both requiring awareness. The addictive process lacks awareness. Increasing awareness can foster freedom to live life more “to the full” – consciously responding to pain and joy and all that life brings.

Scott Peck opened his best selling novel The Road Less Traveled with three words “Life is difficult.” If we do not accept this reality, we will do anything to avoid what we experience as pain. Accepting difficulty does not mean we have to like it. It means we can notice what is real and learn ways to take care of our feelings.

Each moment brings its own challenge of pain or joy. Some are more and some are less intense and/or important.

It is painful to try not to feel or to feel a feeling that we consider acceptable but which is not congruent. Intense feelings are not painful when they are congruent.

We may have learned to deny our responses by doing something that brings relief without awareness. This can lead to an ongoing downward spiral of addictive behavior.

We can learn to feel and to respond in a way that is spiritually and mentally healthy, that leads to growth and greater wholeness.

Ann Marie Wyrsch may be contacted at

From The Focusing Connection - September 2006

This page was last modified on 24 April 2010