What do we do when we know that we want to change an aspect of ourselves or our behaviour, but we resist? Often, we procrastinate, sometimes for years, and maybe make half-hearted attempts before reverting to our old habits and ways. Changing is a combination of;
- behavioural awareness
- positive reinforcement
As we change, we grow and learn new skills for living. Often, we have to set tiny goals that are achievable rather than focusing on one major goal which can feel overwhelming.
Prochaska and Norcross describe in their transtheoretical model of change that there are six stages that we cycle through on our way to change. Briefly, these are:
- Pre-contemplation; this is where we are unaware fully that we have a problem. Take smoking, for instance. Maybe we enjoy smoking and are happy with our actions. We are not thinking of any behavioural changes at all.
- Contemplation is the next stage, and this is where we consider that there is a problem as we come into awareness; with the smoking example, we may find that we are becoming short of breath and are spending too much on cigarettes. We are thinking about stopping smoking. Tying that into the above, we have become aware that our behaviour needs to change and this is important. Without awareness, we cannot take any steps to change.
- The next stage is preparation; we are preparing now to do something about the behaviour or problem. Maybe we begin to plan and make strategies for when we are going to stop smoking. Maybe we decide on positive reinforcements like saving the money we would have spent on cigarettes towards a spa weekend.
- The action stage is taking steps to do something about the behaviour. This is where our strategies and positive reinforcement comes to the fore. We decide that we are going to stop by a certain date, and we know our reasons why; maybe we want to play football with our toddler in the park and be a good influence. We’ve broken it down into small steps and taking strategies to help, like using and a vape or gum to help.
- The hardest stage is the maintenance stage. Here is where we maintain our new habits or behaviours. Sometimes we might find ourselves slipping, and that's OK as long as we cycle back to the action stage and keep going.
- The final stage, termination, is where we have succeeded in our change and no longer revert to the old ways.
Humans prefer to stay securely in their comfort zones. This is a secure place where they can be free from anxiety and stress. Any change brings about the unknown, and the unknown is frightening. There are too many what-ifs. What if we fail? What if we get hurt? What if it all goes wrong and we never recover? We try to visualise the future where change is involved and we can’t see how it might work out. So we stay put; in our relationships, jobs, and bad habits, even though these things are making us unhappy. The flip side of being stuck in the comfort zone is unhappiness, stress, low mood, or ill-health. The flip side of failure, of course, is a success. We could reframe the above questions to what if we succeed - what if it all goes fantastically right?
How many times have you looked back on your life and realised that a change was for the better? Even if it was an enforced change; something that was out of your control? Maybe your relationship ended, and at the time you were devastated but then you met your partner who you are now married to. At the time, you stayed in that old relationship, even though you weren’t happy, but you were afraid to change how it was. You look back five years later and say "that was a tough period in our lives, but it turned out for the best". In the process of change, we can discover who we are. We begin to question ourselves and look for deeper meanings. Emotions might surface which we may not like, but we ask ourselves what they are trying to tell us and then we can begin to discover what was buried.
A life change can mean that we redefine ourselves and our roles. If our marriage breaks down and our lives change dramatically, then who are we now that we are no longer a wife or husband? What does that mean to us? It can be a difficult period of adjustment, trying to figure out our new roles in life, and we can feel lost until life settles again and we adjust to the change and our new roles.
Buddhism philosophy teaches about the value of impermanence; nothing lasts. It’s hard for us to grasp this concept. It is our grasping and our trying to make things remain permanent that creates our suffering. Impermanence is the one true thing; everything changes and it is our resistance to change that creates our suffering. When we come to accept that nothing is permanent and that everything changes, then we can begin to release our suffering. Easier said than done, though!
In each moment we live, and that moment passes and dies. From a scientific point of view, we know that our cells die and new ones form, so in many ways, our bodies are constantly changing too. Nothing is permanent.
Coaches are in the business of helping people to move out of their comfort zones and into the unknown. It’s important to recognise the feeling of fear within our bodies when thinking about change and understanding exactly what it is that we are afraid of. Talking through your fear and rationalising it can sometimes make you realise that fear is just an emotion that will eventually pass. Telling yourself that you are capable, that you can do this, that you are fearless and brave, can be helpful in moments of change. Remembering times in the past where you have encountered change or done something brave can also help you to realise that you can make that leap; you’ve done it before and survived, so you can do it again.
Taking the end goal and breaking it down into small steps can be a much more manageable way to handle change, and feels much more achievable. As you focus on each step at a time, your confidence will grow with each success. It will also motivate you onto the next step, eventually achieving what you set out to do.