Change happens in 5 distinct stages, and the part most people think of as “real change” is actually stage 4.
Understanding the 5 Stages of Change (Prochaska and DiClemente) is a game-changing key.
The best kept secret in the world of self-help is that JUST THINKING ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT TO CHANGE IS A STAGE OF CHANGE.
Yes, that’s how you start to change, by thinking about what to change without doing a damn thing about it.
(Kindly read that sentence over again.)
The idea that just thinking about what you want to change is an actual stage of change is so rational and obvious after the fact (of course you need to think about what you want to change and how you want to change it before you actually enact the change). Still, in the midst of thinking about change, most people encounter this sentiment:
All I do is think about changing X and talk about changing X but I don’t actually do it.
This is exactly why you keep feeling stuck.
When you don’t recognize that repeatedly thinking about something without taking immediate action is a legitimate stage of change, a negative self-fulfilling prophecy is created:
Basically, you tell yourself over and over (and over) again that you’re not someone who does anything to change, you just think about changing without doing anything (thus concluding that you are clearly lazy/not smart enough/undisciplined/etc.). The more you allow negative thoughts to run wild without challenging them, the more they dictate your identity.
Eventually, you do actually become someone who doesn’t do anything to change and who just thinks about it a ton. You’ve fulfilled your prediction for yourself, hence the term self-fulfilling prophecy.
Breaking that cycle starts with a deeper understanding of what the process of change actually looks like.
Deliberate change comes in 5 stages:
1. Pre-contemplation: You’re not even thinking about changing. An example of this is a woman who’s drinking alcohol in a way that’s problematic (leads to regrettable behaviors, negative health consequences, etc.), but she’s dismissing the negative side-effects of her choices. The thought that she should stop drinking is not occurring to her, she’s not even thinking about it.
2. Contemplation: In this stage, it’s likely a few things have happened that have catalyzed some thoughts around whether you should change something. Using the above example, the woman might have noticed a few things about her drinking habits that she doesn’t like. She might be starting to ask herself questions like, Is this even fun? Is it worth the hangover? Do I want to cut back on drinking? Am I really happy with this situation?
CRITICAL NOTE: You don’t actually change anything in the second stage. You basically just think about whether or not you want to change and if so, how that change might go down.
3. Preparation: This is when you’ve decided you want to change and you begin to prepare to execute on the change. You might ask around about how other people have successfully changed and announce to others that you’ve decided to change in order to hold yourself accountable. You might read books or blog posts on change, you might make purchases for yourself that make it easier to enable and stick to the change you want, you might begin creating quick scripts to deal with people who will be resistant to your changes.
4. Action: The action stage is marked by actual behavioral changes. This is the stage that most people associate with change because it’s the stage that’s most visible. Isn’t it incredible that we often associate action as the first stage of change when it’s actually the fourth? If you’ve reached this stage, it’s taken a lot of mental energy, time, reflection, work and emotional risk.
5. Maintenance: A crucial and often overlooked stage. It can take so long to decide on what you’d like to change, as well as to take the actionable steps to change, that by the time you get to the maintenance stage it’s easier to think the tough work is behind you and you can hit cruise control. Ironically, this is the stage that often requires the most support.
Relapsing (i.e. going back on your decision to change) is usually a natural part of this stage that is misinterpreted as failure.
When you have support through the maintenance stage, you learn to prevent, examine and explore your relapses, mining for the loop holes that you then begin to tie off.
With the exception of pre-contemplation, each stage of change require a great deal of work, attention, time and energy. Thinking is included in this work. It’s hard to encounter conflicting thoughts about what you want and then reconcile the dissension. Our identities, responsibilities, roles and desires are fluid and often require conscious calibration through regular, honest reflection.
Again, change takes time. These are only a few of the reasons that even when you’re trying to make a simple change, simple usually doesn’t translate to easy.
Be gentle with yourself. I’m not suggesting that you give yourself a big hug in lieu of taking personal accountability for your mistakes, I’m saying that taking personal accountability and punishing yourself are not the same thing.
If punishment were an effective strategy, wouldn’t you have succeeded by now?
Self-punishment doesn’t work. The idea that you become better by making yourself feel bad is simply incorrect.
Only self-compassion works.
If you cringe at the idea of approaching all your missteps with heaps of self-compassion, SAME. Here’s an example of self-compassion that’s not, like, emotional-petting-appalling, “This is harder than I thought, I need to strengthen my strategy around dealing with X. I know I can figure this out.”
Figuring out what you really, truly want can be challenging enough — implementing and maintaining the changes you’ve decided upon can be even more difficult. #5 of my ten tenets especially applies here, and if it applies to you, recruit support.
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