We all have things that we like about ourselves and things we know somewhere deep down we’d be better off changing. People talk about wanting to wake up earlier, get more exercise, straighten up their house, take more time for themselves, spend more time with the kids, and so on. However, just like a New Year’s resolution, many of these changes either never happen or don’t last very long if they do. Why is this? Why do we so often fall short in making changes?
Social scientists have determined that there are five stages that people go through when making lasting changes (DiClemente, 2018). The first involves being unaware of the need for change. People in this first stage need to change, they just don’t know it. For example, say you are beginning to experience continued conflict with your partner in recent weeks. You find yourself in this conflict because believe your partner is beginning to pull away from you. You are convinced they are planning to leave you when they actually very much wish to continue your relationship. What needs to change? A couple things, possibly including your perspective, but for the sake of this example we’ll focus on learning to control the tone and volume of your voice. Turns out you’ve been yelling at your partner fairly aggressively while trying to work through the problem. Your partner is shocked and defensive, and the conflict has only been escalating. Your partner tells you to stop yelling at them and you become aware of this behavior after weeks of arguing and move into the next stage of change.
In the second stage, you now recognize there is something you may need to change but haven’t really decided you want to. This may look like, to continue the previous example, justifying your behavior. Maybe you believe your partner deserves to be yelled at for spending too much time with their friends or at work. They hurt you pretty badly, after all. More likely, you hadn’t even realized you’d become emotionally activated and raised your voice. Maybe the shame that you’re now experiencing is overwhelming and you’d prefer to just pretend it isn’t happening. Furthermore, you’re demanding your partner also pretend it isn’t happening, but they can’t or won’t go along with it. They want to confront the problem head on. Since you love your partner and recognize your role in the conflict, you make the decision that you should get a handle on your outbursts and move into the next stage of change.
In the third stage, you’ve decided you want and need to change and are beginning to figure out how to do it. You’re bracing yourself emotionally for the stress and uncertainty involved in making a change, you’re identifying what exactly needs to change and how it can be done, and you’re developing a plan of action. Once you’re done preparing, you move into the fourth stage.
Now in this fourth stage, you’re in action. You’re catching yourself getting upset with your partner and instead of acting on the urge to yell, you go opposite to your emotion and, as calmly as you can, tell them that you feel like they are not prioritizing you the way you need them to. You express your gratitude when they spend more time with you and you regulate your own disappointment, fear, and anger when they can’t or won’t spend that extra time with you. Your relationship returns to a state of harmony, and both you and your partner are happy. The instability of change starts to pass, and things feel like a new normal. Maybe your partner is still busy at work, but you’re more ok with it. Maybe your partner was the one who decided to make the change and spend more time with you, and the problem was resolved. You move into the final stage.
The fifth stage involves maintaining the changes you’ve made. It can be easy to fall back into old patterns as time passes. Keeping the change involves catching yourself in those moments when you start to yell at your partner again. This time it should be easier than at the start because you will have done most of the work to make a permanent change.
So, the next time something feels like it isn’t quite going right and you need a change, consider the process of change itself. It usually won’t happen overnight, so practice acceptance and patience as you go through the process of recognizing the need for change, deciding to make a change, preparing to change, implementing the change, and finally maintaining it.
DiClemente, C. (2018). Addiction and Change, Second Edition. The Guilford Press.