Written by Dr. Ken Buckle for Maggie’s Place Alumni Moms
Given on April 8, 2012, Easter Sunday
HOUSTON—Here we are at the final article in this 5-part series! In previous articles we have examined the theory of change described by Drs. James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente. Their first four stages were: (1) “Precontemplation” which represents that state in which we are not at all ready to take action to make a change, (2) “Contemplation” which is that point in which we begin to ponder making a change, (3) “Preparation” which involves the gathering of information and mapping out a plan for change, and (4) “Action,” in which we take steps on a regular basis to effect some change in our lives. As we move through these stages, we get closer and closer to starting some new positive habit or to ending a destructive habit.
The fifth stage is “Maintenance.” Once we have been successfully taking action for six months, we transition into a period in which we are continuing to take action toward long-term change, working at it for several more years. We need to keep doing whatever has been working, and this is really critical. As time goes on with our regular action, the temptation to revert back to the old behaviors will gradually decrease. With this long-term action, the addict (for example) begins to feel more confident and experiences a new freedom. Achieving one goal gives us the confidence to take on a new challenge. The person may also feel a desire to share her testimony with others and reach out in service to be of help someone else. These are all good things.
However, a person at this point may think, “oh I have this beat, so I can relax.” Then we may see the recovering addict who has been attending 12-step meetings on a regular basis begin to attend fewer meetings and not checking in with her sponsor as frequently. The person who has been eating a healthy diet stops being so careful with his food selections. Before you know it, the weight is coming back on or the addict has relapsed. This, unfortunately, is very common.
What does this mean then for the Stages of Change theory? If the person taking Action or in Maintenance goes off the plan, the most important thing is what happens then in his or her thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The person may feel discouraged and give up and refuse to try again. This person then lands back in Precontemplation, far away again from change. However, another person in this situation may get fired up and start taking Action again right away. Still a third person might decide that the wisest thing to do is to consult others and revise her plan before taking Action again, and so lands in Preparation for a short time before moving to Action again.
Some people really like this theory of change because a slip up doesn’t necessarily mean that a person has failed. It doesn’t suggest that you haven’t made progress, and certainly doesn’t mean that you haven’t learned anything about working toward your goal. The runner, despite a stumble and fall, jumps up and continues running until the finish line is crossed.
The bottom line is that in the field of psychology we now know a few important things about change. First, change is an uneven course. There may be periods of success alternating with a setback or two. Sure, there are people to take on a challenge and never look back…but this is not the usual pattern. Second, a permanent change requires high motivation and a long-term commitment. Many of us want something dramatic to happen in our lives but we don’t want to work hard for it. This is magical thinking. The good news is that you can do it if you keep at it. Taking action and continuing to take action is so very important. Third, your thoughts and feelings about the process are mission critical. Stay positive and think “progress, not perfection” as they say in the 12-step program. Having a partner in change or a support system to give you encouragement can make all the difference in the world. Here is our firm foundation: a conscious decision to change, a wise plan for going about it, and then regular action toward your goal.
As we celebrate spring and the Easter season, we experience signs of hope and new life. Winter, with its darkness and deadness are over. Christ has conquered death and made all things new. We clear away the old leaves and branches so that new growth can be encouraged by light and warmth. Our Risen Lord is robed in brilliant white, giving us grace and strength to be different than we were before.
Jesus talked about and encouraged dramatic change to the extent that it is like being born again (see John chapter 3). St. Paul described taking off an “old self” and putting on a “new self” (see Colossians chapter 3). With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can be transformed.