Why Is Change So Hard?
Altering our behavior takes time — and it often involves backtracking.
Posted August 8, 2016 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
verb: make or become different
noun: the act or instance of making or becoming different
Change, transformation, alteration … however one may choose to name it, can be seen all around us. Whether this change be taking public transportation rather than an Uber, making healthier lifestyle choices, or deciding to be a little more friendly to that colleague at work; more often than not, we all have personal behaviors we wish we could adjust, stop, or start. From a young age we are introduced to change, some more often than others, and somewhere along the line we begin to form our own perceptions on the subject.
The mere mention of the word "change" may cause some to feel uneasy. We often find ourselves resisting change, perhaps because of the perceived risk or fear associated with it. This resistance can be seen in the student who always finds himself or herself procrastinating, the 10-year smoker who keeps having "one more," or the overly stressed boss who continues to add to his plate. It’s an interesting predicament we put ourselves in. So why do we have such a hard time initiating or following through with our desire to change?
A renowned psychologist, James Prochaska, proposed that we often find ourselves in the previously described predicaments as a result of our perception of change. Behavioral change is rarely a discrete or single event; however, we tend to view it that way. More often than not, behavioral change occurs gradually, over time.
The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, created by Prochaska, identifies the various stages through which individuals move when attempting to adjust old habits or form new behaviors. A linear progression through the stages is not the norm. Individuals tend to move back and forth through the stages, re-cycling through them until the change becomes fully established.
Why we have such a difficult time following through with desired change may perhaps be better understood through an exploration of Prochaska’s stages of change.
As we come to gain knowledge behind the meaning and function of each stage, we may gain a further understanding of where we stand in regards to our own progress. By identifying where we are in the process, we can then shape and guide our goals to assist us in moving from one stage to the next.
As you read through the following stages of change, I encourage you to consider what stage you may be in and what actions you might take to progress to the next.
The first stage of change is one in which individuals may be aware of the behavioral change they desire; however, they have no conscious intention of altering, changing, or stopping their behavior. Often times this may be due to a lack of insight or full awareness into their problems. One may also find themselves in this stage due to numerous unsuccessful attempts to change that have led them to give up trying. It is also within this stage that individuals’ desires to change may be strongly influenced by pressure from others who are aware of their problem. For example; a mother who begins to notice that drinking wine every night while cooking dinner may be a problem after her child continually mentions it to her.
In order to progress through this stage, it is essential to instill motivation towards change within. This can be done by educating oneself on the behavioral change that is up for debate. Say, by researching what moderate versus problematic alcohol consumption looks like. Looking at the positive outcomes of changing or continuing your behavior, as well as how your behavior may conflict with your personal goals or values can also prove to be helpful. Individuals often move past this stage once their perception of the advantages of change is more substantially developed.
The contemplation stage of change is characterized by having further insight and awareness into the behavior that is up for debate. At this stage, an individual acknowledges that they have a problem and begins an internal debate about pursuing change. This can be the most difficult and frustrating stage of change, as it entails a high level of uncertainty. A substantial amount of time may be spent in this stage because many people may not find themselves ready to commit to making a change. They may remain in this stage, perhaps feeling stuck as they go back and forth between measuring the benefits and costs of behavioral change.
To progress through the contemplation stage — and perhaps rid yourself of the overwhelming sense of uncertainty — it may be helpful to do a cost and benefit analysis. Conduct a thorough analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of continuing with the proposed behavior or moving forward with behavioral change. The most helpful way to do this might be to actually sit down with a pen and paper and write your thoughts out.
- Behavior Up for Debate: Smoking
- Advantages of Continuing: Stress relief, smoke breaks, social aspect
- Disadvantages of Continuing: Not good for my health, expensive, smell, fiance upset with me
- Advantages of Changing: Save money, improve health, improve relationships, won't smell bad
- Disadvantages of Continuing: Will miss the social aspect, might miss having the outlet for stress relief
In addition, examine the potential obstacles that may get in the way of change and work to identify ways in which you may overcome them. This is something that can be more easily analyzed after completing your costs and benefits analysis, as you may be aware of some of the things that you see as advantages that may pose as obstacles. For example; if you know that you use smoking as a stress relief a potential obstacle could be not having an alternative solution. Therefore, identifying ways in which you could relieve stress in a healthier way, such as exercise, could be beneficial.
Individuals progress to the preparation stage of change upon committing to the intention to change in the immediate future. The advantages of making said change have been established as outweighing the costs that they might incur. It is at this stage that one may begin to actually take or experiment with small steps towards change, typically within a period of one month. For example, someone who would like to eat healthier may purchase a nutritious eating cookbook or an individual struggling with anger issues may look into possibilities for professional help.
What makes or breaks whether an individual progresses through this stage to the next is their commitment to exploring, planning and insuring. Think through all the possible avenues towards change, explore how you will achieve the change that you desire. Individuals may benefit from drawing up contracts with themselves, setting specific measurable goals, and detailing how they will accomplish the task at hand. For example: I will go to the gym Monday and Wednesday after work for 45 minutes for the first week of my behavior change.
In addition, one must develop a detailed plan for contingencies in order to stay on track. For example: If my behavioral change is to quit smoking, what will I do if a friend offers me a cigarette? Positive reinforcement from others — such as someone treating you to a movie after your first week of successful behavioral change — as well as from yourself — getting a massage or pedicure, say, after two weeks of success — may help you through the progression of this stage. Be sure to share your commitment and plans for change with friends and family and encourage them to follow up with you in regards to your progress.
When individuals move from planning to doing they progress to the action stage of change. Someone within this stage has put his or her plans into action and made significant behavioral changes within the past one to six months. By adhering to our plans we have made substantial adjustments to our relationships, routines, environments, and perhaps even to ourselves in order to further the change we desire. For example, someone looking to decrease procrastination may have begun to keep and follow a realistic and purposeful daily schedule.
This may be the stage during which the most commitment is required — and it may be essential for someone moving through it to delegate a large amount of time to sticking to his or her plans for behavioral change.
A very common experience one may have during this stage is increased pressure or negative feedback from those who played a role in an individual’s undesired behavior. On the other hand, one may begin to notice an increase in praise and encouragement from those who are supportive.
It’s important to continually reflect back upon the advantages of the commitment you have made, check in with your plans, as well as provide yourself positive reinforcement. Acknowledgment of the progress you have made thus far and reflection upon what you have gained is essential.
Lastly, be kind to yourself! It is likely that you are working towards a long term change: If, for instance, you miss a day at the gym don’t view it as a full-blown relapse into past behaviors; trust you will have plenty of days in the future to exercise and get back on track the next day.
In the maintenance stage, your once desired behavior is now a reality and has been for the past six months. An individual may come to realize that the one thing they doubted they could do is actually possible. Your new behavior is firmly established and the threat of returning to old behaviors becomes less intense or frequent.
Out of all the stages, this stage is by far the most important. It is through this stage that an individual will work towards sustaining long-term change. The possibility of relapsing to old behaviors and re-cycling through the stages may always be present, so it’s important to continue planning for events that might trigger your old behaviors to reappear.
Recalling what helped you through previous stages, such as a cost and benefit analysis, can help during this stage when you feel less strong. In addition, reflecting upon the mistakes you’ve made can help you avoid them the next time around. As we all go through life and are bound to make mistakes, there will undoubtedly be things we would like to improve. Healthy self-reflection is allowing yourself to acknowledge those mistakes and processing what you would do differently in the future while still accepting yourself for who you are today.
One must avoid over-analyzing, passing judgments, or feeling guilty about oneself as this may lead to self-hatred. For example, an individual who makes behavioral changes as he desires to get to work on time arrives five minutes late after three successful days. Healthy self-reflection may involve processing the morning and recognizing that he did not pack his lunch the night before; therefore, he had to take time in the morning to do so, making himself ultimately late. Rather than beating himself up over the incident, this individual vows to pack his lunches the night prior.
Change is not something that typically occurs in a linear fashion. Returning to problematic behaviors is often part of the game. If you find yourself fluctuating back and forth between the stages, view this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Reassess your desired behavior, analyze your plan, and continue on the pathway toward bettering yourself!
A Word to Our Support Systems
It’s essential for those who may be offering us support throughout our journey toward change to meet us where we are at and allow us to come to our own conclusions. Pressuring someone you care about to make a behavioral change can lead to re-cycling through previous stages.
One of the most essential components of progression through the stages is instilling internal motivation. Pressuring our loved ones to change may make them feel overwhelmed or uncertain. For example, an individual attempting to eat healthier decides to begin with three home-cooked meals during the first week of change. With the intention of supporting their loved one, the significant other pushes for five home-cooked meals. It’s possible that this may be seen as too much of a change and too soon; therefore, they transgress. Anything that moves an individual towards making a positive change can be viewed as a success, whether this is on a small or large scale. Encouragement and support is what we need — even and especially if we fall back into old habits. We must be allowed to learn from our decisions so that we may take ownership of both the positive and negative ones we make.
The above is a guest post by Stephanie Ballard, LPC, CADC.
Prochaska, J., DiClemente, C., & Norcross, J. (1994). In search of how people change. American Psychologist, Vol. 47, No. 9, 1102-1114