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Change is inherent to life. Everything is in motion. Everything is transforming. However, sometimes we get stuck in one of the stages of change. We go back, we live the same experiences and reproduce the same conflicts, so we end up entangled in a skein of negative emotions such as fear, anger, guilt, anguish or insecurity.
Other times we develop a great resistance to change. We cling to the past, to the known, and refuse to move on and evolve. Why is it so hard for us to change? James Prochaska’s Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (TTM) explains it.
When our idea of change prevents us from moving forward
Prochaska suggests that we fail to move forward due to our perception of change. A change in behavior and attitude is not usually a single event, as we usually think, but it occurs gradually over time.
We go through different stages of personal change before leaving behind old habits and ways of thinking. Usually, that progression is not linear. We tend to move back and forth through the different phases of change. Sometimes we even go through them several times, until change is fully consolidated.
Knowing the stages of personal change will allow us to identify what stage we are in, to better understand our position towards progress. It will also help us stay motivated and set the right goals to move on to the next stage.
The 6 stages of personal change we all go through
In the first stage of change the first doubts assail us. We begin to suspect that there is a problem, although we do not know very well what it is. In fact, we can go through a phase of denial in which we are aware that we need to change something, but we refuse to recognize the true root of the problem.
It is also possible that we are aware of the necessary change in behavior, attitude or way of thinking, but we are not yet ready or prepared to carry it out. It is a phase in which there is no full awareness of the problems.
It is likely that we are not fully aware of the consequences of our behaviors or we do not have enough information. For this reason, to advance to the next stage, we must find a motivation for change, analyze the advantages that it will bring us.
We can ask ourselves: Have I ever tried to change this behavior? What would have to happen to consider a behavior to be problematic? If I continue on this path, is it likely to happen? What will I gain from the change?
In this stage of personal change we develop a greater understanding and awareness of the behavior, attitude or way of thinking that we want to change. We recognize the problem and start looking for solutions.
This can be a particularly difficult and frustrating phase of change because it is accompanied by a high degree of uncertainty. In fact, we can spend a lot of time in this stage because we develop an ambivalent posture: although we are aware of the benefits of the change, we also see the renounces and the costs they entail.
Other times we do not have the necessary psychological tools to face change. We are not prepared to commit to that transformation. So we can get stuck in this stage, feeling helpless.
To move forward we can carry out a rational analysis of the pros and cons of change, being aware that in order to move forward in life, we always have to lose weight. We must ask ourselves what benefits change will bring us and if the costs are too high, try to find alternative ways that minimize these sacrifices.
When we enter the preparation phase we are ready to commit to change and we intend to change immediately. We begin to take small steps towards transformation, such as beginning to inform ourselves about what we can do or seek professional help.
This stage of change is decisive for progress. If we explore our options, we plan and make informed decisions, we are more likely to move forward more easily and succeed in implementing the change.
In this phase it is important that we project ourselves into the future and imagine the obstacles that may arise, in order to consider alternative action plans that allow us to continue moving forward. It is also essential to set realistic goals that we can meet so that discouragement does not ensue. If we share our goals with others, especially those who have a certain authority or status, we will be more likely to achieve change, as shown by a study conducted at Ohio State University.
In this phase of personal change we take action. We begin to implement our plans to achieve the desired change. We adjust our routines, relationships or environments to achieve our goals.
In this stage of change, are required a great commitment and an iron will to be systematic. Typically, we enter this phase with a lot of motivation, but as the days go by it decreases.
We will also begin to experience the first obstacles. It may be that people give us negative feedback or the environment in which we move does not encourage us to change, but rather keeps us tied to what we want to leave behind.
For moving to the next stage of personal change we need to remember the reasons that led us here. We need to focus on the benefits of change and try to reward ourselves along the way.
In this phase of change we realize that we can make that change. The initial behaviors begin to become habits, so going back to old routines is more difficult.
It is through this stage that we work to consolidate change in the long term because the possibility of relapsing into old behaviors and returning to previous stages is still present. So it is important not to let your guard down.
It is worth remembering the obstacles that we overcome since it will give us strength and make us feel more empowered. We can also reflect on the mistakes we made to avoid them next time. And we can ask ourselves how to continue improving.
Relapses are like a ghost that is always hovering around change. In fact, they are quite common. When we go back we can feel failure, disappointment and frustration because we have the sensation that all the effort has been in vain. Although it’s not true.
The whole journey has made us stronger and become a source of experience. We must avoid blaming ourselves excessively since we will end up hating ourselves. Punishing ourselves is useless.
Instead, we must start a mechanism of conscious reflection to detect the errors and try to correct them so as not to trip over the same stone twice. We need to ask ourselves what caused the relapse and what can we do from that point on to avoid those triggers in the future.
In any case, we must remember that changes do not occur linearly. Old habits wait a slip to come back again. That is part of the path of growth. If at any point we got ourselves stuck between stages, we can take it as a signal to stop along the way, do an exercise of introspection, and learn more about ourselves.
Prochaska, J.; DiClemente, C. & Norcross, J. (1992) In search of how people change. American Psychologist; 47(9): 1102-1114.
Klein, H. J. et. Al. (2020) When goals are known: The effects of audience relative status on goal commitment and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology; 105(4): 372–389.