How do People Change

As in all of society, change is inevitable.  Americans change jobs an average of ten times before age forty.  Moving trends indicate that Americans change permanent locations more often than residents of other countries.  Divorce statistics also indicate that we are not so opposed to making major changes in the “significant other” department either.

With all this change, why is it that many people shudder at the thought of changing behavior that will actually help them live a happier, more successful life?  Why do people find it fairly easy to give up friends and family to follow a new job from Las Angeles to New York, but find it so difficult to abandon a habit as unhealthy as cigarette smoking or overeating?

An analysis of the phases that a person goes through when undergoing change can help shed some psychological light on this process.  Although people may vacillate between one phase or another before they are successful at maintaining their final state, human behavioral theorists postulate that humans go through the same sequential process when faced with major change. 

Pre-contemplation Stage

In the precontemplation stage, a person is completely unaware of their need for change.  They may even become resentful at the mere suggestion that something in their life be changed.  They either refuse to see that a problem exists or they are oblivious to it.  A common practice at this stage is to blame somebody else for the problem.  For example:  I smoke because my kids drive me crazy, or, I am overweight because my wife does not cook healthy food.

Contemplation Stage

In this stage of change, a person is beginning to increase their awareness that there might be a problem that needs addressing.  They spend time thinking about the problem but are, as yet, not ready to do anything about it.  This phase is marked by anxious feelings that change is impossible for them.  Common phrases may include, I want to lose weight/quit smoking/stop drinking but I can’t.

Preparation Stage

In this stage it is not uncommon to see a person revert back to a previous stage.  It is this phase that a solid commitment is made and the individual begins to look into what kind of action needs to be taken.  This stage is marked by desperate comments like, I have got to quit or I am going to have a heart attack; or, something has to change.

Action Stage

This is a pivotal point in the change process.  At this point, a shift in a person’s belief system has taken place.  Where they once thought that they could not make a positive change, they now believe that they can take effective action.  Characteristically, this stage is where people can relapse quite easily or quit trying altogether.  When a person is taking action and making changes, it is critically important to have a support team in place whether it be a coach, a friend or a family member.  People who are already taking action are also usually willing to reach out for and receive help when they need it.

Maintenance Stage

This stage is marked by the ability to maintain your new healthier, more desirable habits.  Temptation may still be a factor but it is tolerable and minimal.  Although relapse is always a possibility, the satisfaction and confidence that come with victoriously changing something for the better usually outweighs the temptation to go backwards.

As you progress through the stages of change its important to understand that a certain amount of ambiguity is normal and natural.  Even in the course of a day a person may move into and out of several stages.  Diligence and perseverance is needed to settle into one stage, then progress to another.  The positive behavioral changes and the rewards that come with them will be enough to build your confidence and keep you moving toward a happier, more fulfilled life.