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What you need to know about making difficult changes


Why is it so hard making change and making it last? Because our brains don’t really prefer to change that much. Newness takes significant processing energy. The brain is designed for maximum efficiency, so it favors the patterns that are known and therefore easier.


Consider how you prefer taking a route to the grocery that you know well, rather than taking a new route that may have some unexpected traffic or construction or require more focus & attention from you. We like to stick with what we know to reduce the likelihood of unknown problems or extra effort.


But sometimes, we know that we need a change.


Perhaps we need to change a habit that is not working for our health,

...or a way of doing something that isn’t giving us the outcomes we want,

...or maybe we need to change a significant situation like a new job,

...or we want something different in our relationship dynamic.


Whether the change is large or small, there is a psychological process we all go through. Known as the Stages of Change or Transtheoretical Model, it was mapped out in the late 1970s & early 1980s by psychological researchers Dr. James Prochaska and Dr. Carlo DiClemente.


Diagram of the Stages of Change model
*Image credit below.

But why do these stages of change even matter?


When we know how the stages of change work, we can better identify where we are in the process and possibly identify ways to help ourselves through it.


There are 6 different stages in the model, which are fully explained below, along with specific ways to recognize the stage you are in and how to move yourself forward to the next one.


Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

“I’m not ready for change yet”


In this stage, we are either unaware of the need for a change or in denial about it. We might also feel resigned to the current state of things or believe that we have no control over making a change.


Pre-contemplation stage looks like:

  • Lack of awareness about an issue

  • Denial of an issue

  • No thoughts or intentions about making a change.

  • People around us might see the clear need for change, but we don’t

Pre-contemplation examples:

  • Alcohol use - I don’t have a drinking problem, I just enjoy drinking. I can cut back if I want. Most other people have Monday morning hangovers too.

  • Physical health - I’m young and pretty healthy; there’s no need to pay attention to what I eat at this age.

  • Relationship health - Yeah, this relationship is unfulfilling, but that’s just the way it is sometimes.

  • Self-worth - I don’t really like myself. Makes sense though, there’s not much about me to like.


Stage 2: Contemplation

“I might be getting ready to make a change”


In this stage, we know that a problem exists and we start considering the idea of addressing it. We might be open to confronting the situation but it’s not a high priority and we aren’t ready to commit to any action.


Contemplation looks like:

  • Uncertainty about taking any action

  • Conflicted feelings about whether taking change steps is even worth it

  • Overwhelm with the idea of action

  • Lack of confidence in our ability to make & sustain change

Contemplation examples:

  • Alcohol useMy drinking has gotten a little out of hand lately with missing some work days. Maybe I should try to cut back soon.

  • Physical health - Ugh, I feel more sluggish and blah when I eat fast food all week. I’d cook at home, but it’s just so much work.

  • Relationship healthIs it normal to feel this disappointed and disconnected all the time? We should work on things. But why bother? My partner will never change and anyway we'd always stay together for the kids.

  • Self-worth I really beat myself up a lot. I’d never say this hurtful stuff to a friend. But what I think about myself is true, even if it’s mean. It’s not something I can change.


Stage 3: Preparation

“I’m ready to make a change”


In this stage of change we have solidified our actual intent to take action steps soon, like within a month or so. It feels more important to us now and working on the issue has moved up on our list of priorities. We start making specific plans about how to get the change happening. But we might still have a little worry about doing the hard work required for the change we want.


Preparation looks like:

  • Researching options and gathering resources for the change

  • Identifying and deciding on small steps to get started

  • Making a specific plan and setting up a new routine if needed

  • Increased confidence about taking the steps and sticking with the process

Preparation examples:

  • Alcohol use I don’t want to risk my job; I have to shift myself to weekend drinks only. I’ll do some research about the recommended drinking limits and create some guidelines for myself.

  • Physical health - I’m tired of feeling tired all the time. That TikTok video had some really simple diet changes I could make little by little. And I could probably try cooking 1 new recipe a week.

  • Relationship health Okay, something has to give. I’m going to research online about how to bring this up to my partner. Maybe we can read a relationship book together or start counseling. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like this.

  • Self-worth Maybe I do deserve to be a little happier and not feel like a piece of s**t all the time. I’m really not a bad person. Those TED talks about how to grow confidence and self-worth made a lot of sense to me.


Stage 4: Action

“I’m taking action steps now."


In this stage, we actively work on making behavioral changes. We stop or start doing things as needed to move us towards our goal. This stage requires a considerable commitment of time and energy and resolve.


Action stage looks like:

  • Making changes to our current environment

  • Avoiding or adding particular settings

  • Shifting who we interact with

  • Shifting how we interact with people (frequency/methods)

  • Implementing the new routine or plan we mapped out in Stage 3


Action examples:

  • Alcohol use It’s been 5 days and I’ve successfully avoided drinks all week. Now that it’s Friday, I have my plan in place for the max number I’ll have. All the rest is out of the house.

  • Physical health - I feel good about the healthier foods I chose at the grocery. I’ve watched the how-to video for making that new recipe twice and I’m almost excited to try this new plan!

  • Relationship health I’ve written out what I want to say to my partner, and I have some book titles and couples counselors to share as options for us. I’m going to stop my internal griping and focus on working together for improvement.

  • Self-worth I’m going to read a bit in this book about self-compassion every morning and start paying more attention when cruel thoughts pop in. I’ve been saying at least one nice thing about myself each night before I go to sleep too.


Stage 5: Maintenance

“I’m holding steady and assessing my progress”


In this stage of the change model, we focus on sustaining the positive changes we’ve made. We try to remain alert to potential pitfalls and prevent ourselves from falling back into old patterns. We also assess what’s working or not working and make tweaks to our plans.


Maintenance stage looks like:

  • Sticking to our change plan even when it’s hard

  • Actively avoiding people/places/things/thoughts that could lead to a regression

  • Actively observing small successes and rewarding ourselves for them

  • Leaning on people who encourage, uplift and offer supportive accountability

Maintenance examples:

  • Alcohol use I’m pretty proud of myself for sticking to this plan for almost 2 weeks. It’s been hard but I’m impressed with my effort. I need to strategize how to handle the party this weekend, it’s so easy to over-indulge with my buddies around.

  • Physical healthNow that I’ve been making healthy choices 1-2 times a week, I am starting to see a big difference in how I feel compared to my fast food diet. I want to keep this up. I’m going to see about meeting with a dietician or trying one of those phone apps that help with meal planning.

  • Relationship health I’m glad my partner said yes about reading the book together but it sure is slow going. I don’t see much change and it’s hard to stay motivated. Maybe I can find some positive support in a Facebook or Reddit community to get new ideas and keep my focus on being the best partner I can be.

  • Self-worth I’m really disappointed about how I berated myself after that flub in the staff meeting. But I’m pretty impressed that I regrouped after lunch and was able to zoom out and see all the things I did well too. This self-worth stuff takes a lot of effort!


After the initial 5 stages of changes, there is a nearly inevitable 6th stage – the relapse. In relapse, we fall back into our old pattern of behavior.


Stage 6: Relapse

“I slipped up.” “I lost resolve”


Making change happen (especially difficult change) is nearly never a one and done experience. Relapse into old ways happens pretty much every time to everyone. Remember that our brains are designed for maximum efficiency and prefer to go the path of least resistance.


The brain considers old habits to be "efficient" because they require much less physical and mental effort. New habits can require tedious decision-making and mental strength and motivation. Such. Hard. Work. So sometimes our brains just say…Nope. The key with experiencing a relapse is to just notice it and try to find some compassion for yourself (learn how here) rather than falling into shame and blame.


Relapse stage looks like:

  • A struggle to avoid doing things the old way

  • Feelings of frustration and disappointment

  • Feeling like a failure

  • Loss of resolve to stick with the change efforts


What you can do after a relapse:

We can use the struggle we had to learn more about ourselves and about what needs to be added or removed to sustain success. Consider these reflection questions after a relapse:

  • What triggered the lapse back to an old behavior?

  • What can be changed to make the triggers less powerful?

  • What resources and techniques could increase success?

  • What was missing or present that contributed to the outcome?


The cyclical nature of change


The stages of change are actually more like a cycle. After we relapse, we start back at the pre-contemplation stage and work through the 5 stages again. We can go into avoiding the problem, doubting if it’s worth the effort, wavering on the benefits of trying again, then come up with a new plan, and implement. We often move through the stages a bit more quickly after a relapse though, since we now have increased self-awareness and some trial-and-error experience to build upon.


The image of an upward spiral can be helpful here.

- The first time through the stages of change, it takes a while to get around the full cycle (bottom of spiral).

- The 2nd time around the cycles is just a bit faster… you know more about your process and pitfalls.

- The 3rd time takes even less time; the change spiral is getting more narrow as you go upward because of your growth along the way.


Eventually we know ourselves and our pitfalls so well that we can zoom through the stages, maybe even skipping over some.



Your guide for making change


Now that you know the stages, perhaps you can more easily identify when you are in a particular stage...and what you might need to get yourself to the next stage. Consider these reflection questions to guide you in each of the stages.


Stage 1: Pre-contemplation “I’m not ready for change yet”

What areas of my life are disappointing to me?

What things in my life bring me the most distress or confusion?


Stage 2: Contemplation “I might be getting ready to make a change”

What would I change if I knew I wouldn’t fail at it?

What might help reduce my biggest fears about making the change?


Stage 3: Preparation “I’m ready to make a change”

What am I missing that might give me full confidence and motivation?

What person do I know of who has taken this road before successfully?


Stage 4: Action “I’m taking action steps now."

What is the smallest action step I can take to get this ball rolling?

What kind of rewards or supports would help give me the energy to take action?


Stage 5: Maintenance “I’m holding steady and assessing my progress”

What protocols can I set up to keep this change sustainable?

What can help me stay motivated?



Difficulty with change is a human experience


And finally, a little poem that I think illuminates the humanness and difficulty of change quite vividly. Sustainable change is challenging and gradual. And it’s absolutely waiting for you…


Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

by Portia Nelson**


I.

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless.

It isn't my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

II.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I still don't see it. I fall in again.

I can't believe I am in the same place.

It isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


III.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it there, I still fall in.

It's habit. It's my fault. I know where I am.

I get out immediately.


IV.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


V.

I walk down a different street.


--


Sometimes anxiety and powerful emotions make the idea of change feel even more impossible. If you experience intense emotions and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage anxiety & other emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.


*Image credit: Model based on Prochaska and DiClemente’s (1983) stages of change model. Source: Kinser, Jolene. (2020). Factors Impacting Relational Reconciliation in a Mainland China Faith-based Context.

**Poem credit: Portia Nelson (1977) There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery

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