Horizontal versus Vertical: Which Kind of Change are You Inviting?

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

That’s not true though.

We are constantly changing, naturally and effortlessly.  We are wired for change.

Our understanding of life is constantly evolving—just look at how radically and naturally your world view and understanding has changed from the time you were a teenager to today.

You didn’t have to work at that change, you simply grew up. You matured and it happened for you.

We are all capable of enormous leaps in consciousness that leave us feeling that everything is changed even when nothing is different.

Of course, those 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, 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 experience changes.

So you think x instead of y—instead of “I’m a freak of nature who gets nervous around others” you think “Other people might be nervous too, maybe it’s not such a big deal.”

Or you feel x instead of y—instead of feeling like a victim you feel fortunate.

Or you do x instead of y—instead of pushing yourself to be better you start backing off and acting in a more balanced way.

Change along the horizontal plane is a little like buying a brand new house in your current city. There are lots of changes…when you’re at home.

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

That’s horizontal change—it feels somewhat superficial because it is superficial. Some aspect of your psychology has changed but because there is a lot more to you than your psychology, you find yourself looking over your shoulder.

Because horizontal change is shallow, it often wears off. Your thinking, feeling, or behavior may have shifted but your bigger worldview has not so you end up playing whack-a-mole, slapping down specific thoughts and feelings only to find others cropping up in their place.

You can’t whack those thoughts quick enough because it’s not about this “mole” versus that “mole”—it’s about a game that is designed to pop up thoughts.

It’s easy to see why we’d conclude that lasting change isn’t likely or easy when we’re focused on horizontal change. But there is another way…

Vertical Change

Vertical change doesn’t involve looking at the problem. It doesn’t involve examining what has already shown up in your experience.

Vertical change is when we transcend the details of what we’re thinking, feeling, or doing. In vertical change, your understanding of life changes from the bottom up.  

If horizontal change happens by analyzing and trying to solve problems, or bringing in new ways of thinking and feeling, vertical change happens by insight.

Vertical change happens when all of the trying stops. When the analytical, problem-solving mind takes a break. It happens in the silence. In the peaceful space within.

It’s in you already, so it’s more something you realize than something you add.

Maturing from teenager to adult is an example. Learning to ride a bike is another one.

Once you find your balance (which you can only find by feeling for it, not by talking, reading, or thinking about it), you feel the presence of something brand new. With balance you can still fall off your bike, but you’re less likely to. That insight you felt into and realized from within is never too far gone.

A vertical leap is one where you see something so deeply that you can’t unsee it.

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 vertical change into your life is to know that vertical change is always possible in the space before thought, feeling, and behavior.

It is pre-psychology. Pre-brain. Pre-physical facts.

Look to that space. It’s not about changing your thinking, feeling, or doing, but about allowing something bigger to change you.

(You might also check out this talk on horizontal vs. vertical change by Dr. George Pranksy.)


Another thing you can do to invite in more lasting, vertical change is to consider enrolling in The Little School of Big Change. Vertical change is what the school it’s all about.

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