Saturday, March 22, 2008

Making Changes that Last - Part 1

In the next several columns, I’ll be discussing the Transtheoretical Model of change and how we can use it to stop the nasty cycle of try and fail that seems to be the way of much of our attempts to make lasting change. Each month, I’ll talk about a different stage in the model, how to determine if you’re in that stage, and how to get yourself through it.

I think we’ve all experienced getting revved up about something—like getting in shape, or not yelling at our spouse, or getting more organized and finally cleaning that closet that no one ever talks about, but into which you go only upon pain of death. We jump in with both feet and make some significant changes only to fail and find ourselves back where we started. But why? What the heck happened? Over the next few months, we’ll look at how we can be more effective at making lasting change.

Let’s start with an overview of the Transtheoretical Model. See if you can identify the stage you’re in with a change you are currently trying to make in your own life.

Transtheoretical Model of Change
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation – “Change? Who said anything about change?"
Stage 2: Contemplation – “You know, I’ve been thinking about making a change.”
Stage 3: Preparation – “I’m getting my stuff together to make that change.”
Stage 4: Action – “Look at how I’m changing."
Stage 5: Maintenance – “Ta da! I’ve changed, and it’s sticking around.”
Stage 6: Relapse – “Dang, I seem to be slipping.”
Stage 7: Termination – “I’ve finally got it and it’s permanent.”

Working with Stage 1: Pre-contemplation or “Change? Who said anything about change?”
In the pre-contemplation stage you have no intention of taking any action in the foreseeable future. One reason you might find yourself here is that you’ve tried too many times to change and have failed each time. You’ve decided you just can’t change, so you’ve given up trying. What most of us don’t realize is that the reason we’ve failed is because we tried to move from pre-contemplation straight to action; skipping the stages in between. This is a recipe for failure.

Another reason you might find yourself here is that you are unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge what might happen to you if you keep engaging in your current behavior. You might have been trapped under a heavy object for the last twelve years and not know that eating lots of processed foods can lead to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. Or, you might be unwilling to accept that there are only 24 hours in the day. You are determined to do 35 hours of work in 25 (haven’t you people heard of multi-tasking!), and even though there are warning signs, you are unwilling to admit that you’re on the highway to hell.

Self talk in the pre-contemplation stage sounds something like this: “I’ve cleaned this closet out so many times, and it still ends up looking like this. I give up!” Or “Sleep? Who needs sleep?! I’ve got too much to do! Dang, why do I feel so darn tired all the time?!”

If it sounds like you’re in this stage, then you are definitely NOT ready to take action! You can try, but you will only end up back where you started and feel even more frustrated. So what can you do?

Accept it. Acceptance is the ONLY way to deal with yourself in this stage. Accept that you feel and think this way. You cannot change what you do not accept. If you do not accept the fact that you’re just not really interested in keeping that closet organized, or if you won’t admit that you might be tired because you’ve only slept six hours in the last three days, or if you tell yourself that there are plenty of people who have to worry about breaking a piece of furniture when they sit in it, then you will never be able to make lasting change. How can you change something, when you can’t even acknowledge it?

Stop trying. Yes, you heard me correctly. Stop trying. The more you try to change at this point, the worse you will feel and the more you will resist. You most likely know how awful it feels to try and try and try and fail and fail and fail. You try, you fail, you feel worse, you bring more pressure to bear, so you try again, you fail AGAIN, you feel even worse, and so you bring even more pressure to bear, and on and on. A vicious cycle. Instead, relax. Let go. Stop pushing. You’re not ready to take action. It’s as simple as that. Instead…

Pay attention. Become your own observer. Watch yourself throughout the day. And while you’re watching yourself—and this is VERY important—remain neutral. Don’t believe and react to everything you think and feel. Ask yourself questions and just listen to the answers you give yourself, without needing to defend or justify or push them away. Just observe—you, your actions, your thoughts about your actions, your reactions. Observe without doing. Be a researcher of your own life. Remember Star Trek? Their mission was to seek out and explore strange new worlds without interfering in them—well that’s your mission, too.

As you begin to observe yourself with acceptance, you will start to trust yourself more, trust that you are paying attention to yourself, that you know how to listen, that you can listen without judgment to what you really want. This is the beginning of true partnership with yourself. And this is what will move you to the next stage—contemplation. I’ll address contemplation in next month’s column. Until then—“One to beam up, Scotty.”

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