As you’ve contemplated a change yourself or gotten frustrated with a loved one for not changing, do any of these thoughts sound familiar? “Oh, come on now! Just do it! You must not want it badly enough, or you would have done it by now. Why haven’t you moved on!?” These thoughts are often uttered to ourselves or others. So often, we seem to think that all you need to do is make up your mind, decide, and get going. We forget how hard it is to actually change habits and behaviors.
We have routines, patterns, and comfort zones. It takes some effort to get from old ways to new ones, particularly when we’re looking at behaviors that have served us well or offered us something we have wanted or needed.
Some things I’ve learned through my Recovery Coach training have transformed the way I understand change. When I remember, they bring a little more gentleness, patience, and compassion to myself and others as we move through a process of change.
Stages of Change
I had no idea there were clearly identifiable stages in the change process until I learned the Stages of Change Model developed by Prochaska and DiClemente (click the link to learn more). Fascinating! A circular model of Precontemplation – Contemplation – Preparation – Action – Maintenance – Relapse – Precontemplation… one can exit and re-enter at any phase. Fascinating! Eye-opening!
Someone who looks “not ready” or “not wanting” to change might be in the Precontemplation or Contemplation phase. It's hard to tell from just observing. Perhaps they have not yet begun to think about making a change. Maybe they aren’t aware that their behavior is problematic or they can’t begin to wrap their head around what change might involve. They don’t need to be judged as bad or immoral for that.
Another huge eye-opener for me is that there a couple of phases between this “not yet thinking about it” and actually taking action. In our human impatience, especially when the stakes are really high, it can be hard to allow for the time for processing (Contemplation) and planning (Preparation) before someone is actually ready to take steps toward changing the behavior.
I can’t tell you how often my son said, “OK… I’m ready” and I was packing his bags for whatever was next. “I’m ready” may have just meant he was ready to admit there was a problem, ready to consider pros and cons, ready to explore options. When we have loved ones struggling with problematic substance use, we can understandably feel over-eager to jump from Contemplation to Action. We can struggle to understand that Contemplation and Preparation can take time. Sometimes a lot of time.
I know for myself, when I’ve hit a point of being unhappy with certain habits, I don’t always grant myself time to think about it, consider options, and really commit to a plan that sounds interesting or appealing. It's easier to get down on myself for not having done something about it already. (Ever done that?)
Understanding that Relapse (returning to the old behavior) is also a common occurrence in change can help normalize it and alleviate some panic. Rather than jumping to, “Here we go again. You’ve just undone all that you had done up til this poin,.” we can understand it as a slip and a chance to learn and begin again. Nothing is cancelled out. Understanding relapse as part of change can take away the sense of failure that is so often attached to it. Yup, I missed a day of exercise, I had a glass of wine, I ate the brownie. Ok, reckon with that and move on. It doesn’t have to take you spiraling down into a pit of despair or self-condemnation.
Even after we understand the stages of change, we also need to understand this thing called ambivalence and that it is part of change. Ambivalence is a normal human reaction to any significant change. Why? Because you are giving something up or leaving something or someone behind. Even though you are also moving toward something you desire, there is a whole lot of uncertainty around how it’s actually going to go… Ambivalence says, “I want to make this change AND I also really don’t want to make this change.” Ambivalence is not necessarily a lack of commitment. Change takes time. Change takes effort. Change is very uncomfortable.
Think about any big change you’ve considered making… leaving a job or relationship, moving to a new home or state, giving up alcohol or sugar, exercising more… Can you relate to this sense of “I want to… I don’t want to…” stirring within you? Totally natural. Even when you’re considering giving up a relationship, habit, or job that you know is detrimental or toxic there may be ambivalence.
How might understanding the Stages of Change and Ambivalence help you to be more compassionate, kind, gentle, and patient with yourself or a loved one? What have you said or thought in the past that wasn’t helpful? What might you say instead that would be more encouraging, understanding and supportive?
Imagine someone offering you that kind of deep listening. What would it be like to feel seen, heard, validated and much freer to make the choice you want? Alternatively, if someone told you what you needed to do… “You need to go to this program. You need to start now....” it's pretty natural to feel resistant and defensive.
We can be part of the change we wish to see or we can get in the way depending on how we interact (with ourselves or others).
One of my favorite change quotes:
"If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." - Wayne Dyer
Where might you play with this in your life? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments!