Rapid Personality Change and the Psychological Rebirth

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

How can we re-make our character? Can we become another as if born anew? Most models of human development place tight bounds around our capacity for self-directed change. For we are a conservative creature. We crave order and a have a deep need for a stable sense of self. Change, according to these models, is best accomplished in a gradualist manner. We need to focus on taking small steps each day in the direction of the person we wish to become. We need to break down our bad habits, cultivate good ones and over time these small changes will cumulate to produce impressive results.

This approach to self-change has a lot of merit and should be the approach that most people use in their pursuit of personal growth. But this is not the only way that we change, nor is it adequate for all situations. For while we are conservative creatures, we are also mortal creatures with limited time and a limited capacity to endure suffering. Slow and steady change works well if we have a solid foundation from which to build, but if we have descended too deeply into our own personal hell, or if our life has become so dysfunctional that each small step forward is quickly nullified by everything that is wrong with our life, then the gradualist approach may not save us. Sometimes life requires radical change, not merely a change in a habit or two, but a change of such significance that it leads to what is known as a psychological rebirth. Fortunately, this type of change is possible and occurs in more lives than is often realized, or as the psychologist Michael Mahoney explains: 

“Rapid personality transformations do occur. . .[such change] involves enduring shifts in people’s sense of themselves and their perceptions of the world. The phenomenon of quantum change or rapid transformation deserves our continuing theoretical and research attention. It appears to be more common than psychologists had assumed. Moreover, we are wise to acknowledge the implications of such transformations for our ideas about human possibilities.”

Michael Mahoney, Constructive Psychotherapy

But to what degree can this type of change be self-induced? While there is a lot of mystery surrounding this process, the idea of the rapid personality transformation or psychological rebirth has long piqued the curiosity of mankind. Modern psychology may not give this topic the focus it deserves, but there are some clues we can look to regarding the mechanics of this process which may help us unlock the riddle of our own transformation.

William James is one psychologist who spent a lot of time studying this phenomenon. Much of what he learned is detailed in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience and it is from this work that we can find our first clue as to what leads to a psychological rebirth. According to James there is a certain type of person most susceptible to a rapid personality transformation and it is the type of person most in need of one. Rapid personality transformations do not occur very often to those content with life but instead are more likely to occur to those who have reached the darkest pits of despair. Acute suffering, a prolonged state of depression, a pernicious addiction, or utter disillusionment with life are the fertile soil from which the psychological rebirth is manifested. Or as James wrote:

“The securest way to the rapturous sort of happiness of which the twice-born make report has as an historic matter of fact been through a more radical pessimism than anything that we have yet considered.”  

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Many, however, are those who descend into a living hell but relatively few are those who experience the transformation of self that leads to a re-affirmation of life. What differentiates those who remain locked in their misery from those who break free of it? By turning to myth, that most ancient source of the psychology of man, further clues about this process can be discerned. For the rebirth is one of the most common themes of mythology. Countless are the stories in which a hero or heroine is presented with great challenges only to overcome them and in the process to experience a radical transformation in their character. What many of these stories share in common is the element of the sacrifice. The rebirth is only granted to the man or woman who first appeases the gods. But we do not need a god to understand the necessity of the sacrifice as there is a psychological explanation for why a sacrifice can engender a radical personality change.

“Sacrifice always means the renunciation of a valuable part of oneself, and through it the sacrificer escapes being devoured.”

Carl Jung, Psychological Types

The sacrifice is the difficult, but necessary step of abandoning an aspect of our self in order to pave the way for the emergence of the new. The sacrifice is critical in the process of the rebirth for the simple reason that often what keeps us locked in our problems is the inability to recognize that ways of life that served us in our past may morph from promoters of our well-being to the acute cause of our suffering. A sacrifice can take countless forms and may be as simple as the ending of a relationship, the quitting of a dead-end job, or the breaking of an addictive habit. The sacrifice is never easy if it is to be the type of sacrifice that can engender a psychological rebirth. But as Nietzsche put it “the snake that cannot shed its skin perishes” (Nietzsche, Dawn of Day) and so too the man or woman who never risks a break with the past is destined to perish in the stagnation of their worn-out ways of being.

 “. . . the dying of one attitude or need may be the other side of the birth of something new (which is a law of growth in nature not at all limited to human beings). One can choose to kill a neurotic strategy, a dependency, a clinging, and then find that he can choose to live as a freer self. . . A “dying” of part of one’s self is often followed by a heightened awareness of self, a heightened sense of possibility.

Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

Sometimes the mere act of sacrifice will be enough to cure what ails us. Free from the chains of our past we can look at the world with a new set of eyes and move forward with a new sense of purpose and energy:

“. . .a painful sacrifice can be risked with a mighty effort of the will” wrote Jung. “If successful . . . the sacrifice bears blessed fruit, and the [sacrificer] leaps at one bound into the state of being practically cured.”

Carl Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

Not everyone, however, will find that the sacrifice alone leads to its own cure. In most cases the sacrifice will initially have the opposite effect. Instead of curing what ails us and giving birth to a new and better life order, the sacrifice will lead to disorder. For in sacrificing an old way of being we are likely to discover that we have nothing to fill the void. The sacrifice will have cast us down into the proverbial realm of chaos and here danger lurks. For on the one hand in complex systems, such as the life of man, chaos begets new forms of order or as Mahoney puts it:

“…systemic disorganization appears to be an important antecedent to reorganization.”

Michael Mahoney, Human Change Processes

But on the other hand, there is always a risk that the chaos will overwhelm us and rather than leading to a new and better life order, the descent into chaos will lead to a psychological breakdown. 

Some psychologists suggest that the psychological rebirth only differs from a psychological breakdown by the end result. The stages that lead to a breakdown, in other words, often mirror those that produce the rebirth. Or as Jung explains, the loss of balance that the sacrifice can produce:

“. . .is similar in principle to a psychotic disturbance; that is, it differs from the initial stage of mental illness only by the fact that it leads in the end to greater health, while the latter leads to yet greater destruction.”

Carl Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

To diminish the risks of a breakdown an active approach is crucial. Like the heroes of myth, we must view ourselves as explorers of the chaos, not passive observers who are merely pushed and pulled by forces beyond our control. Our goal at this stage is to experiment with novel ways of ordering our life in the attempt to the fill the void left by the sacrifice. But while novel forms of order are crucial for the assent from the realm of chaos, experiments with novelty are stressful and often accompanied by intense states of fear and anxiety. If we can recognize, however, that this is a natural part of the process and not reflective of anything inherently wrong with us, we may find it easier to push forward despite the turmoil that surrounds us, or as Mahoney explains:

 “. . .episodes of intense emotional distress and disorder often reflect natural (and, yes, even healthy) expressions of an individual’s struggles toward reorganization. Such struggles are not always successful, of course, but they may be viewed with substantially less fear and impatience if they are construed as the activities of an open, developing system in search of a “more extensive balance” with its world.”

Michael Mahoney, Human Change Processes

One set of skills that can make the difference between whether we emerge from the realm of chaos as a twice born or whether the chaos forces us back to our old, or perhaps worse ways of being, are re-balancing and relaxation skills. Practices like meditation, physical activity, breathing exercises and other techniques of this nature can be crucial in our attempts to navigate the chaos into which we have fallen:

“When new experiences destabilize one’s system,” writes Mahoney “it is valuable to have skills in re-stabilizing and returning to a sense of safety and security. The more often one practices and refines such exercises, the more competent one feels in risking excursions toward the edges of unfamiliar experiencing.”

Michael Mahoney, Constructive Psychotherapy

In the end however, a voluntary descent into the realm of chaos is risky even if we arm ourselves with tools that can make navigation of this realm easier. So knowing that a radical personality change is possible and that a sacrifice may engender a psychological rebirth, do we make the leap, or do we instead stick to the less risky approach of the gradualist method of change? This is a question each of us must face for ourselves. But if we are already trapped in our own personal hell, the question that may be more appropriate is whether not making the sacrifice is perhaps the greater risk? For the realm of chaos is not only entered by means of a voluntary sacrifice. More typical is an involuntary descent into these depths. If we persist in our dysfunctional ways, if we remain in the words of Jung an “immovable pillar of the past” then eventually the fragile order of our life may give way to chaos whether we like it or not. A sacrifice of our old ways will be forced upon us, but an involuntary sacrifice is, according to Jung, an “unmitigated catastrophe”; it is more likely to result in a psychological breakdown than a psychological rebirth. Therefore, if we feel our life is moving in this direction, if chaos and disorder are already creeping in, we may want to take control of the process and make the voluntarily sacrifice that may save us from a more dire outcome:

“No one should deny the danger of the descent, but it can be risked. No one need to risk it, but it is certain that someone will. And let those who go down the sunset way do so with open eyes, for it is a sacrifice which daunts even the gods. Yet every descent is followed by an ascent; the vanishing shapes are shaped anew, and a truth is valid in the end only if it suffers change and bears new witness in new images, in new tongues, like a new wine that is put into new bottles.”

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

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