Stages of change: are you really ready to change?
The start of a new year is typically when many of us think about improving our lives. Losing weight, tackling low moods or anxious feelings, starting an exercise programme, stopping smoking, quitting drinking, or improving a relationship are all common aims. But how close are you to sorting out the problem for good? This article looks at a widely used framework for helping people accomplish their goals.
In the early 1980s, psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente observed how people successfully made major life changes and concluded that they go through a series of six stages. While the original study followed smokers who quit, their Stages of Change model has since been applied to many areas where individuals want to change. However, change doesn’t just happen smoothly. Often people get stuck in a stage, or have some success and then drift backwards, sometimes right to the beginning. Thus it’s thought of as a cycle of change, with lots of small steps along the way, rather than a neat progression through the phases.
Thinking about where you are in your own change process will help you identify how to move forward. You set yourself up to fail if you leap into action on ambitious goals you’re not emotionally ready and fully prepared for. Matching your targets to your stage of change increases the likelihood you’ll succeed long-term.
Clients tend to enter counselling in the Contemplation, Preparation or Action stages. A counsellor can help you understand the roots of your problem, supporting you as you move through the stages and helping you identify goals and obstacles to change.
Stage 1: Precontemplation (not ready to change)
In the Precontemplation stage, you don’t feel there’s any need to change or you deny you have a problem, even though others may have expressed concerns. Maybe you’re resistant because you tackled the problem previously and couldn’t stick to the new way of living, or you’re frightened of what might happen if you change.
- If you’re in this stage: as a motivator, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen if I carry on as I am?” People don’t usually seek counselling in this stage, although others may suggest they go.
Stage 2: Contemplation (thinking of changing)
At this point, you’re willing to admit there’s a problem but you’re still not ready to tackle it. You swing back and forth between wanting to change and wanting to stay the same. You feel stuck, but changing feels just too difficult. You may find out information about the problem and begin to make vague plans, but there isn’t yet the commitment to change. People can remain in the Contemplation stage for a long time.
- If you’re in this stage: Write a list of pros and cons re changing vs. staying the same. Remind yourself that it’s normal to feel ambivalent about change!
Stage 3: Preparation/determination (ready to change)
You’ve decided that the advantages of changing outweigh the disadvantages and you’re probably going to take action within the next month. You’ve take small steps towards changing and started serious exploration of the problem, seeking possible solutions. But there’s still some uncertainty about changing, which needs to be resolved if you’re going to stick to a course of action. To progress in the Action stage, where you make significant changes, make a detailed game-plan identifying possible obstacles to change along with available social support (support is vital for lasting change), and set realistic goals.
- If you’re in this stage: Be as clear as you can about what you’d like to be different and how you’ll make the changes. Don’t skimp on preparation or you’ll jeopardise your chances of successful, permanent change.
Stage 4: Action (making changes)
This is where you go ahead with your plan and start to incorporate new, healthier habits into your everyday life. You understand some of the origins of your problem and are taking responsibility for your part in it. Commitment is vital and there are challenges, but you’re developing new skills and gaining insights. Six months in the Action phase leads to the next stage, Maintenance.
- If you’re in this stage: Reward yourself regularly: you’re on your way to a better life, thanks to the effort you’re putting in! Keep notes on what you’re doing differently and the results it’s producing.
Stage 5: Maintenance (staying on track)
You’re establishing healthier patterns of behaving and thinking that now feel more natural. This is a critical phase where you have to work hard to prevent backsliding. Relapse is common, especially if there’s a stressful event, but you now have skills and strategies to help you get back on track. The longer you stay in this stage – from six months to several years – the less likely you are to return to old patterns.
- If you’re in this stage: Relapse, or ‘recycling’, is considered normal and part of the process, so be kind to yourself if you slip up. If you do relapse, try and get back on course as soon as possible before the old habits take hold. Learn from the relapse: review what triggered it and put strategies in place for the future.
Stage 6: Termination is the ultimate target, where the new behaviour is so ingrained that even crises or temptations don’t cause a return to the old ways. At any point before Termination, you can find yourself recycling back to a previous stage, but don’t be discouraged. You have new skills and awareness, so recommit to your goals and keep going!
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