Have you ever wanted to make a change in your life but found it all too hard? Maybe you tried to change and failed and thought it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe if you knew more about how people change you wouldn’t be so hard on yourself.

People do change but often it’s through a series of stages. It can take time and involve setbacks. If you want to make significant change in your life you may have to stick with a process that has its ups and downs and be patient throughout.

So how does change happen? The research suggests there are 5 distinct stages.

The first is Pre-contemplation and it’s here that many are either unaware of a problem or in denial. Maybe its anger, an abrasive interpersonal style, smoking, weight loss, drugs or some other personal or lifestyle issue. Whatever it is its having a negative impact on their life but the person doesn’t see it or refuses to acknowledge that it’s something they need to change.

Sometimes the refusal to acknowledge the problem is because of the existence of what is called a competing commitment.   As an example, the abrasive person’s behaviour may be a way of keeping a safe distance from people because he is afraid of getting rejected if he tries to make friends. His abrasiveness gives him comfort that he won’t ever experience that rejection. Moving this person from pre-contemplation to the next stage in the process requires minimising the fear of rejection, busting the likely myth that he won’t make friends, building capability and confidence in friend-making and highlighting the counter-productive nature of his current behaviour given his ideal goal.

The next stage of change is Contemplation and this is where the person is seriously considering doing something about the issue but believes they are not ready yet. Change readiness is a concept that many neglect but it is important to note that behaviour change programs will mostly fail with people who are not psychologically ready for change. Most people can’t suddenly stop smoking. They need to be psychologically ready to do so.

Strategies that help people move from pre-contemplation and contemplation toward more progressive stages focus on helping people to increase their levels of awareness and encouraging them to reflect and evaluate. This might include:

  • providing them with information about the problem
  • asking them to consider the impact of their behaviour and its alignment with their values, and;
  • getting them to talk about their feelings toward the problem and its solutions

The more conscious people become of their own behaviour and what it means for them and others the more likely they are to become ready to move to the next stage in the process.

The third stage in the process is Preparation and it’s at this stage that people are taking small steps toward changing their behaviour. What helps at this stage is:

  • opening up and seeking support from others who you trust and demonstrate care about you
  • using relaxation techniques and positive self-statements, and
  • avoiding situations where the problem behaviour may occur

These strategies continue to be of assistance at the fourth stage – the Action stage – where people are taking significant steps to modify their behaviour and attempting to solidify their new behaviours as they move toward the final stage – Maintenance, where the new behaviour is sustained.

Now this all sounds nice and neat and some may even say it sounds straight forward. However, there is added complexity – relapse. Relapse is where we revert back to previous stages – we go back to exhibiting more of the problem behaviour rather than less. Let’s be clear, when it comes to making any type of behavioural change relapse is the norm, not the exception.

Rather than moving in a nice straight line from one stage to the next, people often loop back to previous steps. It might be a few steps forward and one or two back. During this regression, people often feel embarrassed and ashamed. “I should have beaten this by now, I must be weak”. However, if we understand that relapse is common we can quite easily change our self-talk. Instead of “I am a failure” and “people will think less of me” we can reframe our thinking to “I expected that relapse would happen, it’s normal, it is part of the process, and I will push on”.

The good news is that most relapsers don’t just go round in endless circles and only a minority revert all the way back to denial. Most learn from the setbacks and put in place strategies to minimise future relapses.

Whatever change we seek to make, big or small, it will be achieved more successfully when we understand what stage of change we are at and apply the right strategies to fit the stage, and tolerate and learn from relapses.

We humans are good at making assumptions. Many of us have assumed that change is a one step process – from old behaviour to new behaviour – that the only strategy is willpower, and that relapse is a failure of the weak. As with most things human, the story is far more complicated and sophisticated. Change is a multi-stage process that requires commitment, patience and resilience but mostly a well thought out plan with strategies that suit each stage of change. Change may not be easy but in life the best rewards are those that come with testing challenges.

If you would like to know more about what stage of change you might be at and the strategies that might be useful contact Paul at pcliff@internode.on.net.