One of the concepts in Buddhism is that ‘everything changes…nothing stays the same’. While I have found this to be true, change can come in different ways. Sometimes it’s foisted upon us, and sometimes we are the initiators.
The focus of this post is on changes that we put in place, and specifically, the mindset and process (Stages of Change) that make self-directed change possible.
Phil (age 60) has lived through a difficult five years. His troubles started when the manufacturing company where he had worked since high school shut down, and he was unable to find a comparable job. Phil, already somewhat of a curmudgeon, became more so as he chose to spend endless hours at home. His wife, Joanne, worked long hours–leaving Phil alone for most of the day.
While he wouldn’t admit it, Phil missed his job and work friends. However, he didn’t feel like getting in touch–it was too much effort. Phil spent most of his days feeling angry, sad, lonely and incredibly bored. Joanne suggested that he could take over some of the household responsibilities (it would make her life easier), but Phil believed that he hadn’t cooked dinner before, so why start now? Instead, Phil started spending hours of his time on the internet watching episodes of his favourite 1970’s tv shows on or napping on the couch. Due to his inactive lifestyle, Phil gained a lot of weight. The more weight he gained, the less active he became. Eventually, Phil decided that he didn’t care if he ever worked outside the home again and fell into a rut.
The second blow fell two years later. Joanne, frustrated with Phil’s behaviour and tired of working long hours with little household or emotional support, decided to leave their relationship. Phil was surprised as he didn’t think there was a problem. He believed that Joanne wasn’t really going to leave, she was just mad because he wasn’t helping around the house.
Today, three years later, the couple are divorced, and Phil is living in a small apartment. His lifestyle hasn’t changed. If anything, he has moved from being a curmudgeon to being bitter.
The Stages of Change
According to the Stages of Change theory, there are five steps that we move through to make successful and lasting changes: pre-contemplative, contemplative, preparation, action and maintenance.
Using Phil as an example, it’s clear that he’s in the pre-contemplative stage. While Phil is feeling bitter, chances are that he doesn’t want to change. In fact, he may not even realize that he has a problem. Phil has continued his lifestyle because on some level he believes that it’s working for him.
Back to Phil…
One day Phil returned from the store to discover that the elevator in his building wasn’t working. This had never happened before! As his apartment was on the third floor, Phil decided to take the stairs. By the time Phil reached the top of the first flight, he decided to leave his shopping bag in the stairwell as it was ‘too heavy’ to carry. Walking up the second flight, he decided to stop halfway to catch his breath. Anyone watching would have seen Phil crawling up the third flight on his hands and knees–breathless, his face red and covered in sweat.
Reaching his apartment, Phil was scared. What had happened to him? What if his unit was on the fourth or top floor? He wouldn’t have made it. For the first time, Phil wondered if something might be wrong. Phil had entered the contemplative stage.
The Contemplative Stage
People in the contemplative stage have started to understand that there is a problem and that maybe they need to do something. This is the pro vs. con stage. Phil may be thinking, “I’m out of shape”. “What if the elevator breaks again?” “What will I have to do to get back in shape?” “To get back into shape, I might have to give up my daily bags of chips, but if I don’t, I may die in the hallway!”
During this stage, no action is being taken, but things are bubbling below the surface. This stage can last a long time because we over-estimate the benefits of staying where we are and think that changing will require too much effort.
Phil Moves On…
Eventually the level of fear that Phil experienced that day decreased. Once the elevator started working, he was able to get his bag of chips from the stairwell. He didn’t change his behaviour, but each time he reached for a salty snack he remembered sitting on the flight of stairs, unable to move.
Phil started to become aware that he sometimes found it hard to get up from the couch or was out of breath if he stood for too long. Putting on his pants, he noticed that his belt was on it’s last hole–how did that happen. Perhaps it was time to do something! Phil had reached the preparation stage.
The Preparation Stage
During this stage the person wanting to change is moving to outward behaviour–not only do they want to make a change, they are coming up with a plan. For Phil, this meant using the internet to find ways to get back into shape. He searched for blogs written by older men who were doing what he was thinking of. He figured out that he would need to lose some weight, so he started researching a healthy weight for someone his age. Realizing that he would need to move to a healthier diet, Phil called a ‘skinny’ friend to find out what he eats. He decided to buy ‘one of those gadgets’ that will tell him how many steps he’s taken.
After all his research, Phil came up with his plan. He decided that for two weeks, he would cut back to one bag of chips a week, walk 1500 steps a day around his apartment, and add a daily salad to his diet. Phil decided that he would start his plan on June 1. Phil was on his way to the active stage.
The Action Stage
At this stage, the person is changing their behaviour–making the change. This is the exciting stage as it becomes clear that something is happening. The person is committed to the change and is starting to reap the benefits of their first actions. A positive feed-back loop is created…a behaviour change is made…a benefit is noticed…motivation to continue is created…
Unfortunately, this is also a dangerous time in the change process. In the honeymoon phase of action, people can sometimes underestimate the amount of effort it takes to continue new behaviours over the long haul. It’s important to note that a change hasn’t been accomplished until you are able to maintain it.
Let’s Check In on Phil…
On June 1, Phil was ready to go. He had his ‘gadget’ and a week’s worth of salad greens were ready in the fridge. Seven servings of potato chips were packaged for his daily treat.
At the beginning, 1500 steps felt like running a marathon. His daily bag of chips seemed to grow smaller as the days went by, and he decided that salad wasn’t his favourite food. However, by reading blogs from others who were also working to improve their health, Phil was able to stick to his plan for the first week.
The second week didn’t feel as difficult, and one day he noticed that he had walked 2000 steps without really trying. Near the end of that week, Phil decided that he wanted to create a new plan for the next two weeks. He repeated this process and, after six months, Phil’s fitness level had improved, he had lost some weight, and spent more time out of his apartment. His mood had improved.
All was going well until…
Welcome to the Relapse
One day Phil woke up and he didn’t feel like doing his walk through the neighbourhood. He hadn’t slept well the night before and was in a bad mood. This had happened before, and he had been able to move past it. Today, something was different. As he lay in bed he thought about all he had accomplished over the past six months he felt tired. It suddenly occurred to him that if he wanted to keep in shape, this was a life-long project. As a wave of overwhelm flooded over Phil, he decided to take the day off. “No salad for me today!” “No walk and I’m going to treat myself to two portions of chips!” Phil felt better immediately and enjoyed his “day off”.
Sadly, as often happens, one day turned into a week, then two and before he knew it, Phil had slid back into some of his old habits. It was only having to move to a bigger belt hole, that shocked Phil back into reality.
Relapse is very common as we work on making a change. Once we realize that we need to keep working in order to make a change permanent, or we become over-confident that the change is permanent, and we don’t have to be aware of our behaviour any longer; we run the risk of losing ground.
However, all is not lost…there is the maintenance stage.
The Maintenance Stage
The purpose of the maintenance stage is to avoid relapse and consolidate the benefits that have started to pile up during the action stage. It is during this stage that, based on what we have learned in the action stage and any relapses, we discover the minor tweaks we need to make to the plan(s) in order to remain successful in our new lifestyle.
It is during the maintenance stage that we learn to be gentle to ourselves.
As Phil recovered from his relapse, he realized that getting back to his routine wasn’t as difficult as he had thought. He wasn’t starting from the beginning because he already had a plan and skills that he had developed throughout the previous stages. Phil realized that it was unreasonable for him to be so strict with himself about his behaviour. He wanted to think about ways that he could keep improving his fitness level and lifestyle changes while still taking an occasional break.
Over time, Phil stopped seeing his relapse as a failure and instead as a learning opportunity.
The Value of the Stages of Change Theory
In this post, I’ve created Phil’s story relating to his desire to change his behaviours in order to improve his health. His change process can be used for any change that you would like to make. This particular theory is often used to help people overcome substance/alcohol addiction. As well, you can determine where you are in the change process (i.e. which stage) and have a road map of where to go from there.
And now…in a nod to 1970’s memorabilia…a classic from the Partridge Family…enjoy!
Please note: Due to the upcoming Ontario provincial election, youtube appears to be airing political ads before showing their clips. Blaikie Psychotherapy has no control over what clip is shown and isn’t aligned with any political party.