Most of us find changing personal habits and behaviours extremely difficult if not impossible. WE are all filled with good intentions but when push comes to shove, most of us fail to convert these intentions into permanent life –changes. The uncomfortable truth is that when it comes to healthy behaviour, losing weight, keeping fit, improving relationships, or developing our self-esteem most of us remain unchanged over long periods of our life. The process of changing is a little more complicated than we like to think. Psychologists have broken the change process down to recognizable stages.
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation is the stage in which people are not intending to take action in the foreseeable future, usually measured as the next six months. People may be in this stage because they are uninformed about the consequences of their behaviour. Or they may have tried to change a number of times and become demoralized about their ability to change. They are usually described as being unmotivated.
Stage 2: Contemplation is the stage in which people are intending to change in the next six months. They are more aware of the pros of changing but are also acutely aware of the cons. This uncertainty can keep people stuck in this stage for long periods of time. We often characterize these people as procrastinators.
Stage 3: Preparation is the stage in which people are intending to take action in the immediate future, usually measured as the next month. They have typically taken some significant action in the past year. These individuals have a plan of action, such as joining a gym, talking to a counsellor, talking to their GP, buying a self-help book or whatever.
Stage 4: Action is the stage in which people have made specific changes in their life-styles within the past six months. Since action is visible, change is often equated with action. However, initial action does not mean permanent change, as most of you know. You stop going to the gym, your Lenten fast fades away. Your positive-parenting gradually dissolves. So another stage is needed.
Stage 5: Maintenance is the stage in which people are working to prevent relapse. They know the difference between a lapse and a relapse. A lapse is a temporarily blip when you ‘fall off the wagon’ but get back up very quickly. A relapse is when you fall off the wagon and then use that as an excuse to give-up.
The bad news is that research shows that that relapse tends to be the rule when action is taken for most health behaviour problems like weight loss, fitness, dietary changes, stress reduction, relationship improvement, etc.
The good news is that for many people though they ‘fall off the wagon’ they don’t fall all the way back to stage 1 – that is to a stage of –re-contemplation. In other words, they don’t have to start from scratch again. They can pick up again at the preparation or action stage.
For example, in a study of smokers it has been demonstrated that 40% of all active smokers are already in the pre-contemplation stage – i.e. thinking about giving up. Another 40% are contemplating change, i.e. thinking about giving up smoking within the next six months or so. And the final 20% are in the preparation stage, i.e. preparing to stop within a month. So, the good news with bad habits is that most people are engaged in an internal dialogue about changing. However, most people, when they begin, find it hard to get to the maintenance stage of change.
The sad truth is that most people have forgotten what it is really like to make a permanent unalterable decision. In fact, you might go through life and only make a handful of such decisions. You think you make permanent decisions every day but you have your life rigged with escape hatches, trap-doors, and hidden exists that allow you to jump ship whenever the going gets rough. Most people confuse good and positive intentions with decision-making.
You have probably announced on countless occasions that you have decided, for example, that you are going to change you eating habits. You may announce your “decision” but in truth it’s probably little more than a good intention! The truth is you rarely make the decision to change and to maintain it. All you are doing is contemplating change, preparing for change, maybe taking some small initial steps toward change, but never really deciding to change. The sad truth is that you are probably hovering around the contemplation and preparation stage of change. Wasting your life away with good intentions.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.