Help me if you can: The stages of change

By Kathryn Casey

When I was in high school my mom, who had smoked since college, gave it up cold turkey. I’ve seen wives do everything they can think of to get their husbands to change. I’ve worked with teenagers who know that to bring up any issue with their parents’ parenting style is to have their faults thrown in their face.

Why does it happen this way? Trying to change a bad habit can be frustrating to say the least. We can gain a little encouragement and a lot of understanding if we consider the Transtheoretical Model of Change, informally called the stages of change. Change is a process with distinct periods that can last different lengths of time dependent on a variety of factors. They are not neat and tidy stages that move gradually upward. Rather these stages spiral upward, and often include a few periods of back-peddling only to improve the next time around.

I have a bad habit, but I don’t know it. Everyone around me knows it. There is the look family members exchange when I begin to act that way. They know. But I don’t know it. They might even tell me I have a problem, but I just can’t see it. This first stage is the precontemplation stage. I might minimize the problem. This is just the way I am. Everyone gets angry at times. I might rationalize this problem. It makes sense for me to drink like this. After all, I have a really stressful job. Or I might project the problem onto others. You think I’m too judgmental? Look at you, who’s judging who now?

You want to help me? The key here is to help me become aware of the problem and the consequences of the problem. Socratic style questions work better than accusations. It will be difficult at first, but if you don’t nag or enable my problem, and don’t give up on me, I may gradually become more aware, even if it takes years.

Once awareness settles in, we move into the contemplation stage. I’m starting to be aware, starting to connect the dots. I may even have thought of dealing with it, but I don’t know how. During this time, I’ll gather information and weigh the pros and cons of what I’m doing. There are some risks. I might stay here for years, chronically contemplating, looking for a feeling of certainty. Or I engage in wishful thinking, as if the problem will fix itself or not be so hard to fix later. Or I might be prone to premature action, getting started with change not knowing how hard it will be. Maybe I was pushed into change before I was ready. And I fail.

Appealing to me emotionally will help me more through this stage. You want me to change because you love me. You support me. Here are the ways this habit has hurt you and my family. I have what it takes. Don’t give up on me.

Gradually contemplation moves into the preparation stage, the third stage of change. You’ll see some early stirring of action, and see me initiate some small changes. I’m not fully engaged in the effort to change, but I’m “trying.” I know it’s a problem.

As I move into the next stage you say under your breath, “finally!” This is the action stage. It will require a lot of time, energy and effort. I had no idea it would be this hard. It takes a lot of energy to make this change happen. And here is the key, because it takes so much effort, my effort will slow down after a while. It does not mean change did not happen. If I fall a little, or a lot, at this point, I’ll go through the stages again. Knowing this is inevitable, that change is hard, will help keep me motivated to give it another go.
And after substantial effort, we reach the maintenance stage. The change, ever so hard to make, seems to have taken root. I can maintain the changes I’ve made. I still have to remain vigilant. Impulse behaviors are never easy to change. But it is possible. Whether I never fall back again, or fall back and must return to those stages, each time I grow stronger.
The duration of each stage varies by person. On the outside it might seem easy, or impossible. If the person is in the action stage and seeks intervention, almost any treatment will work, but during the other stages, it will take a more tailored approach…and time. The key for successful change is for the person to move through these stages at his or her own pace with outside support. It can be done!

— Kathryn Casey operates The Good Life – Life Coaching, in Hughson. For a copy of this article and to read previous installments of “Here’s to the Good Life!”, check out Coachingthegoodlife.org/Resources or call (209) 645-2224

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