The springtime often signals us to find a general sense of refresh, routine in daily habits, and stages of change — hello, spring cleaning! But how many times have you promised yourself you’re going to get to exercising, to commit to reading one book a month, or to have that tough conversation you’ve been avoiding?
You know what I’m talking about. The cyclic nature of trying to keep that new promise to yourself no matter what can be detrimental to self-esteem and perceived self-competence, especially when you have a tough time making it stick. So, how can you nip it in the bud and make this promise a sustainable change? And further, how can you and your partner be conscious about the stages of change you want to make– and commit to them together?
What is the Transtheoretical Model (AKA the Stages of Change)?
This model can be understood as the decision-making process a person goes through when they want to make a change in their life (see an expanded explanation of the stages here). This can be anything from quitting smoking* to exercising, quitting a job, or ending a relationship. While this model has most often been used for health-related behaviors, there is evidence to show that it can apply to a greater pool of change.
To give you a better sense of how this works, let’s look at the process of deciding to change patterns of eating potato chips. Whether you’re not enjoying them anymore, they don’t feel worth the money, or they’re just something that you want to stop eating, for the sake of this example, you have begun your process to stop eating potato chips and are in the pre-contemplation stage.
You do not think that there’s an issue. Instead, you’re fist full with your favorites but may have noticed that your best friend doesn’t seem to enjoy them as much as you do.
Typically after hanging out in the pre-contemplation stage for about six months, you tiptoe into the contemplation stage. You are recognizing that you may not enjoy the chips as much as usual and in fact, recently read something about how they may lead to sluggishness and fatigue. “Huh, that’s interesting” is as far as you go.
This typically entails action within the next 30 days. You get really into learning more about how potato chips impact your body and energy. You might begin to poll your friends on who has kicked this historically favorite snack food and what works for them. And you probably are still snacking on your favorites while saying to yourself, “tomorrow we are making this change”.
You made it! Beginning to implement your routine, having stopped buying the potato chips, and are committing to not putting them into your shopping cart. You are able to hold on to why this is important to you, but the question now is, “can you keep it up?”
Behavior change has been made, aka the potato chips are not a part of your life, and you have committed for about six months. You feel proud of your ongoing commitment to releasing something that you wanted to let go of, and you are taking action each day to keep this habit out of your life.
Sounds great… but how can I use this?
If you are pondering this question, it sounds like you’re in the preparation stage of your change! This is a great thing to know about yourself, and helpful for next steps. There are some tools you can use to speed up your change process, through patience and diligence will still be crucial.
Assess where you are in your process
After reading the above stages, it should be easier to assess yourself and where you want to go next. Are you thinking about implementing a plan? Do you know enough about where you want to be to get started? Do you believe that you have the strength to change? Check this article out for some concrete tools on how to be honest with yourself and your process.
Gather the facts
If you’re feeling stuck in your process (for example, if you are reading this article and thinking “sounds great but…”), gather some more information about the change you want to make. Start researching different types of exercise regimens that could work for you! Imagine a life where you feel better in your body, one where you do not feel winded when you chase your kids up the stairs. What does this feel like?
Be aware of feelings
If you are my client, you know I’m a big feelings person. When there is a feeling of stuckness, there is usually a reason for it. Keep in mind that this does not mean you are doomed to be stuck forever! Just be aware of what is coming up for you when you think about making your change.
For example, is there a fear that bubbles up for you? Or a feeling of incompetence? Do you truly believe you can excel without your favorite chips, or have you been told– implicitly or explicitly– that change is not possible for you?
Do a cost-benefit analysis
What will happen if you do wind up making your change? And, potentially more importantly, what will happen if you don’t? Recognize all the ways your life has the capacity of shifting, and be aware of the further changes that may come from your plans.
Make a commitment…but not too big!
If you have never exercised before, it is unlikely that you are going to exercise for two hours every day for the next week. Try to be realistic with yourself and set a reachable goal. This will give you a bit more confidence to keep raising the bar. After all, you can’t get to the roof of the building without taking the first step on the bottom floor!
Stages of Change: Feeling a bit more ready?
That is amazing! If not, don’t fret. While this model is said to be transtheoretical, it really focuses more on thoughts and behaviors rather than deeper meaning and nuance. If you’re feeling stuck, it may be worth digging a little deeper with a therapist to help explore what is keeping you from the changes you want to make.
I will leave you with this: Do not, I repeat do NOT forget to be patient with yourself. Humans are a complex mix of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, existential crises, idiosyncrasies, chaos, order, and an infinite amount of flaws that make us beautiful. If you are stuck on your change, do not lose hope. This is okay and normal, and could just require a therapist’s trained and “as-objective-as-possible” perspective to help you see yourself wholly.
*Prochaska & Diclemente, 1983
Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW