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What stage of the change process are you in?

 13 April 2023

How does someone change?  How do we let go of destructive or self-destructive ways of behaving? 

Have you been through the process of trying to change something in your life but found that you don’t stick with the change? It could be giving up something like smoking, eating more healthily or an interpersonal problem such as finally having that difficult conversation with your partner that you keep putting off.

That’s the conundrum tackled in the book Changing for Good*. The authors point out that, generally, we cannot force ourselves to change through strength of will alone. But the danger is that when we fail we tell ourselves we are helpless and there’s no point even trying.

Or instead we look for easy solutions to our problems - a magic pill, a crash diet or an instant ‘positive thinking’ method. 

The authors argue that, when it comes to successful change, timing is everything and it is important to understand what stage of change you are in. There are five stages:

  • Precontemplation - this is when we are ‘in denial’ about the problematic behaviour
  • Contemplation - when we have become aware of the problem but feel stuck. We can sometimes stay in this stage for a long time.
  • Preparation - we are planning to take action and have prepared a detailed plan on how we will achieve our goal. An important step is to make our intention public.
  • Action - taking the action required. This stage requires the most commitment and energy. People can mistake the action stage as the only important part of the process, underestimating the importance of preparation and maintenance of change.
  • Maintenance - maintaining the change. Without a strong commitment to maintenance there will be relapse. People who opt for quick fixes don’t appreciate that maintenance is a long, ongoing process.

The importance of recognising these stages is that often people jump the gun - they commit to a change without proper contemplation or planning and then find that the change doesn’t stick and they are back to square one.

It is important to recognise that successful change may take several attempts over a long period. Relapses are common but it is important not to get discouraged and assume that a relapse means you’ll never achieve change. Instead, says the authors, people are usually in an upward spiral in which, even though they may be relapsing, they are getting closer each time to sustained change.


* Prochaska, James et al, Changing for Good, 2004, HarperCollins, New York