While we typically think of change as happening when we’re actually “doing” something, a lot of critical steps take place beforehand.
I’m reminded of many situations in which people have been referred to me for therapy and they’re just not quite ready. For example, a doctor sends someone in for help in losing weight or quitting smoking. A husband urges his wife to come in because she has panic attacks and won’t go many places. A wife urges her husband to come in because she thinks he drinks too much. Parents bring in their adult child who has severe social anxiety and won’t look for a job.
Two psychologists, James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, wrote a book called Changing for Good, in which they describe six stages of change. Although originally used for people overcoming addictions, their theory can be applied to a wide range of problems. This post looks at the first stage called precontemplation.
People in the precontemplation stage haven't begun to think about change. They may not realize they have a problem, they may not know change is possible, or they may have given up hope. As a result, they aren't quite ready to overcome their distress. It's common for someone in precontemplation to say:
This is just how I am.
I don't have a problem.
What's the point?
People in precontemplation can seem like they're in denial. Why doesn't he simply admit he has a problem? family members complain. It's true, denial can play a role in the precontemplation stage; however, it's often related to lack of information. For example, in the case of anxiety, people may not know they have disorder that is highly treatable.
When people in the precontemplation stage seek help, it's often because of pressure from others. Another hallmark of the precontemplation stage is a feeling of embarrassment and demoralization.
Here are some things you can do when you're in the precontemplation stage:
1. Recognize that you may feel safe in this stage. You may not be happy about your situation, but at least it's familiar, and you know what to expect. In addition, there may not be as many demands placed on you because of your situation. Allow yourself to recognize these aspects, while at the same time, maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself.
2. Even if you've tried to overcome your problem in the past and feel like you've failed, don't give up on yourself. Most people who are successful changers have tried many times before they succeed. It's all part of the process.
3. Try to increase your awareness about how your problem is preventing you from living the life you want to live. What things do you wish you could do that you currently avoid?
4. Be open to events in your environment spurring you on in the change cycle. For example, I worked with a woman whose son was graduating from college in a few months. She really wanted to overcome her fear of flying so that she could attend the ceremony.
5. Reading educational and self-help materials can be a big help at this point, but give yourself permission to simply read. You don’t have to do anything.
6. Make use of the Internet and read about other people who share similar problems.
7. Realize that you're more than this problem. You are a whole person who has many strengths and a few challenges.
8. Don’t beat up on yourself. This is a tough place to be. Practice self-compassion.
Simply learning that precontemplation is a predictable part of the change cycle can lessen your despair. You've taken a big step in simply entertaining the idea that your life can be better. This glimmer of hope marks the possibility of a new beginning.
Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you
from doing all the things in life
you’d like to.
–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.
Photos by Pink Sherbet Photography, CC, via Flickr