The Process of Change
How Do We Change?
The process of change is not always easy as making a lasting change typically requires a substantial mental, emotional, and time commitment. Whether it’s wanting to eat healthier, change addictive patterns, or accomplish some other goal, establishing deep-rooted and enduring change is often thought of as an elusive operation and difficult to attain.
Arguably one of the first steps needed in order to produce any desired change in one’s life, is to understand how the process of change occurs. It can be tempting however, to first enter into long dialogues regarding why people do the things that they do, and what drives them to act certain ways in the first place, especially when you might be doing your best to support a loved one.
However, understanding the motivation behind someone’s actions is beneficial only once the framework for change is fully understood and enacted. It would be a mistake to first fixate on why certain negative behaviors persist, even when they are unwelcome, without this awareness.
In the early 1980’s Prochaska and Diclemente, two prominent psychological researchers, were studying the process of change. More specifically, they were looking at which factors made it more likely that individuals were able to quit smoking cigarettes without requiring treatment, which for some was assuredly a lifelong habit.
This is a question that had long evaded researchers and the public alike, and it is difficult to understand what specifically made the difference. What they found was that the individuals who ended up being successful in their efforts, had done so because they were ready to change.
They coined the term “Transtheoretical Model” and in doing so, defined the process of intentional change across multiple contexts: biological, environmental, psychological and had intentions to apply their findings to a variety of behaviors, populations and settings.
Stages of Change
Central to the Transtheoretical model are the six identified “Stages of Change” (the process of change) that emerged from the research regarding the logical and predictable series of steps deemed necessary for behavior change.
While the amount of time spent in any one stage can be variable, the tasks accomplished during each rung are fixed. In addition, any person’s identified stage of change dictates the most effective treatment approach for counselors, therapists and practitioners alike to work with that individual.
Any given person’s relationship with any problem behavior exists within one of the stages of change, whether they are aware of the correlation or not. Often, resistance to change is greatest during the earlier stages, and gradually is replaced with a more proactive and committed approach towards change.
As the first stage in the process of change, an individual may not have conscious awareness that there is a problem, and they are certainly not considering changing it. Common characteristics of someone who is in the precontemplation stage of change is denial and ignorance, especially of the links between the problem behavior and social or environmental consequences.
Someone in this stage has yet to believe that:
(1) there is a problem
(2) there is a good enough reason to change, or
(3) that they are in control of the behavior.
Although they may be familiar with others’ attempts to get them to see the error in their ways, it is likely that any such conversations will be welcomed with hostility.
The second stage in the process of change begins the moment that a person begins to wonder if they might actually have a problem after all. They may not agree in entirety that there is a problem, or that the consequences fully have their bad behavior to blame, but they are taking steps in the right direction.
This stage is marked by ambivalence and conflicted emotions, and of weighing the costs and benefits of giving up their old ways. They may begin to tally up the consequences for their continued behavior, and may peek at the possibilities and potentials awaiting their changed ways. However, someone may never believe that the long term benefits of change will outweigh the short-term costs, and can spend their entire lives on the teeter-totter of indecision.
The preparation stage in the process of change is otherwise known as the determination stage, as this is the moment where the balance shifts: a commitment is made. This particular stage is characterized by the individual collecting information necessary to change, and experimenting with change on a small-scale basis.
For someone in this stage, it may be beneficial to identify goals and create a plan of action, including brainstorming possible pitfalls or barriers that might surface that will prevent further progress. In addition, it may be beneficial for someone in preparation to enlist the help of some outside support, such as family, friends, or a counselor to ensure accountability.
During the action stage in the process of change, all of the work compiled in the previous step is brought to life, and the individual –who has recognized their need for change, thought about the consequences of not changing, and come up with a plan– is ready to work. Direct action that is observable and measurable is taken, and a variety of techniques are employed in order to facilitate the change.
This part of the process of change is also referred to as the willpower stage, and aptly named is the true test of one’s tenacity and strength to change their ways. At first, plans developed to deal with internal and external pressures to succeed may rely on short-term rewards, and are regulated by positive self-talk, although at this point are also in their most fragile state.
Those in the action stage do well to have increased social support, and regular reflection on their positive steps forward in order to sustain the momentum they’ve created, and maintain the change.
The hallmark of the maintenance stage in the process of change is the ability to successfully avoid prior identified bad habits, as well as old temptations, and to remain steadfast in implementing the new, more positive behaviors. It is during this stage that one will often feel more confident in their agency over their behaviors, and control of their lives.
Of course successful change is dependent upon not only removing negative behaviors, but also replacing them with positive ones. Preserving and cultivating this decision on a moment-by-moment and day-by-day basis is necessary for sustaining change, and avoiding relapse. Of course, the process becomes more routine as time wears on, yet in the face of temptation turns once again delicate and precarious.
Of course, even if behavior has become solidified through years of maintenance, one is still at risk for relapse, and it is important to be up-front about the possibility. Relapse defined is an act of abandoning the new sought-after changes, and returning to old behaviors.
Central to one’s experience of relapse often involves feelings of disappointment, failure, shame, and frustration. People might slip back into any one of the aforementioned stages, as it becomes clear that new information is required, and a new game plan is in order.
The key in this stage is in quick action: to recognize that relapse happened, to limit the negative self-talk pitfalls, to seek support immediately, and get back in the game.
Are You Ready to Change?
Contact Nsight today to learn more about the stages of change, and how we use this knowledge to create and sustain change in our clients. No matter where you or your loved one might be regarding their readiness to change, there is help for you at Nsight Psychology and Addiction.
Contact Nsight Psychology & Addiction at 949-629-3730 to learn more. Nsight Psychology & Addiction has locations in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, and Santa Ana, California.
Written by Rachel O’Connor, the counseling content specialist at Theory About That