How Do You Know When You’re Ready for Change? Noticing the Stages that Prepare You for Something New

Posted on March 17, 2010 at 9:39 a.m.

By: Daniela Abbott

By: Daniela Abbott

How do you know when you’re ready for change?

At our recent lecture on “Women, Wellness and the Environment,”  Karen Kurtak stayed true to her outline, sharing naturopathic perspectives on a  number of health issues ranging from the digestive system to lymph and breast health to plastics and pesticides to the nourishment/herbs that promote wellness and keep us connected to the seasons. Her talk was comprehensive, and discussion of one topic prompted entrée to the next.

Women in the room were listening.  A few took notes, some asked questions, and most sat quietly throughout.  The responses themselves demonstrated the many places we can be in our readiness for change. 

On one end of the continuum, quietness might signal anxiety (“Oh no!  I feel overwhelmed.  I don’t know any of this and I’ll have to change EVERYTHING!)  Resistance is triggered and the listener begins to tune out, resolving not to change a thing.

On the other end of the continuum, one can hear the quiet hums of affirmation (“Yes…uh-huh...”) and the confident questions of further exploration (“So, what do you think about trying this variation?  That technique?”)  

And somewhere in the middle, there is a quietness that comes with absorption; of taking it in and deciding later.

Each of these responses represents a different “stage of change” in a model developed by Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente  in their book, Changing For Good (1994).

When you are considering change, you are ready to explore.  You are in a stage of questioning called “Contemplation.”  You know you’re in “Contemplation” because you identify that there’s a problem or something you want to change; you experience ambivalence rather than contentment with a particular situation.  You find yourself talking about your problem, thinking about it often, yet aren’t ready to act on it.    What you seek is reassurance; you want to feel understood and you want to understand the problem more.  You wonder if others have gone through what you’re going through…and want to know that you’re normal.

After what can be months and years of seeking understanding (both of yourself and of the problem), you start to feel strongly about wanting to change.  You find yourself talking about solutions more than the problem.  You go public about your desire to change, and start considering your options. This stage is called “Preparation.”

At “Preparation” it’s tempting to go “cold turkey.”  You promise you’ll never overeat again…never get in debt…never drink or use drugs…never…never… do that thing that you consider “the problem.”  Unfortunately, without new skills in place, you’re likely to return to the very same behavior, especially under stress.  So, it pays to take some time in “Preparation” to identify the patterns that led to the problem, then think of other ways to respond.

We humans need support to create change. “Preparation” is also a time to think about your friends and family; to find out whether they support your change and determine their roles in helping you.

(As I write this, I flash forward to Halloween.  If, after Ms. Kurtak’s talk, you decided, “I’m going to eliminate refined sugar from my diet!”  here goes.   This holiday presents a timely challenge!  Start by forging a direct path to the produce section where you can find packaged fruits and nuts while avoiding the “2 for” bags of candy in the center aisles.  Maybe you’ll bypass the supermarket altogether and opt for the craft store where you can purchase stickers, pencils, beads and markers.  After all, they are sugar-free.  Finally, carefully select a trusted someone to “check” your children’s treat bags for suspicious Snickers and Kit Kat bars.  Community support is needed at a time like this!)

This “aside” aside, here are some feelings and beliefs that can get in the way of real change:

  • Guilt, shame, or wanting to please someone else
  • Expecting that it will come easily, without having to give up the beliefs or habits that support the problem
  • Looking for a “magic bullet”  i.e., one solution that solves all vs. a combination of approaches that will help you make the change

What helps is to come up with 3 or more possible solutions, and to select the one you like best.  Then, communicate the plan to your family and friends so they can support you and know their roles relative to the change.

You’ll also need a list of new coping techniques--  distracting, safe, soothing and/or pleasurable behaviors you can use in times of stress.  Part of the “Action” of change is also acting differently when you’re under stress (that includes the stress of missing your old behavior).

Once you’ve decided on a plan of action, and you’re actively using it, you’ve moved from “Action” into “Maintenance”.  As the word would imply, this is a time when you continue to hone your new skills. That includes maintaining your new behaviors, developing or strengthening the relationships that support them, and dealing positively with slips when they occur…and they do.

The “Maintenance” stage can last from 6 months to a lifetime.  As an example, there are probably a handful of regular habits that you started a while ago and continue to engage in daily.  These habits give meaning, well-being, health and flow to your life.  Do you remember what got you started?  Times when you were “off-track”?  What you did to get back “on-track”?

Recalling these successes also gives you the confidence to start something new.  We need to feel confident in order to take risks.

As you start on your new path, please remember:  slips are natural.  They’re not a sign of failure.  Usually a slip is an indication of overwhelming stress or insufficient coping skills. At such times, it’s important to decrease your stress level to a degree that you can feel successful again.  Re-build your confidence then evaluate what led to the slip, and refine your plan.

There’s one stage I alluded to earlier…it’s  called “Pre-Contemplation.”   You know that you’re in “Pre-Contemplation” because EVERYONE ELSE tells you that you have a problem; they give you unsolicited opinions and advice, a lot of “shoulds” and guess what?  You don’t listen.  You don’t think you have a problem; and in fact, if they would just keep their opinions to themselves, you’d be just fine!

Is this happening in any part of your life?  Or do you find yourself on the other end, “nagging” a loved one to do something different?

Change is a challenge.  It’s not linear, and we often go up and down and around and around, as well as get stuck.  Even when moving in circles, just remember that you may still be moving forward, as in an upward spiral.


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