Third and fourth order change

In a previous post, I explored the distinction between first and second order change -- change that oscillates and change that endures. Both of these kinds of change view the problem as real. The need for change is a fact, and all that remains debatable is how to go about changing. Second order change is an improvement on first order change. We fix how we are going to fix what's wrong.

Bruce Ecker and Laura Hulley developed in the concepts of third and fourth order change in their 1996 book: Depth Oriented Brief Therapy. They were noticing their clients coming to realizations that changed their lives profoundly. Clients were changing their cosmology of how life works, what happens to them when they take actions and what it pays to do. Perfectionists began to take satisfaction in the accomplishments that now seemed good enough. Painfully shy people began to make friends and became interesting to know as well. Sex fiends began to see the objects of their extreme desires as complex, fascinating people with feelings of their own, a need for understanding, an appetite for tenderness and valuing of freedom to choose.

They characterized these as third and fourth order changes. Second order change only reframes the problem as "wounded inner children" or some other creative diagnosis. Third order change reframes the problem as a solution in use. It is neither unconscious, unknowing or useless. There is a pro-symptom position maintaining the problem (i.e. perfectionism, shyness, sexual predation) as a way to avoid danger, manipulate control freaks, handle threats or manage chronic problems. This non-pathological diagnosis opens the space for fourth order change. A pro/anti synthesis realizes the best of both positions. The value of the solution in use and the perception of problem both get realized as valid.

Fourth order change revises the long-established, limiting "facts of life". The relentless danger is no longer oppressive, everywhere and always a problem. The control freaks are no longer in control, intimidating or credible. The apparent threats are actually opportunities to strut one's stuff, respond to the challenge or play with the possibilities. The chronic problems are easily vanished by creating desirable experiences instead.

When changes run this deep, third order changes revise strategies. There's more than one way for a former perfectionist to value his/her accomplishments, progress and intentions. There several ways for an ex-shy person to express interest in others and create activities to pursue together. There are countless avenues for retired sex fiends to be romantic, affectionate, respectful and sensitive. The world we live out from within -- is transformed by coming to these realizations.

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