Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Gerald Young, Ph.D.
Gerald Young Ph.D.

Powering Personal Change

Starting and Stopping on the Way to Greater Joy

Sarah wanted to change right away, and change everything at that. She sought advice from everyone, describing her problems endlessly. She tried many solutions, but her problems did not diminish. She was told to have patience and plan, but she could not even take that first step.

Stan believed that his problems were so complex that he could not change. He kept his worries to himself and did not even try to improve. He was advised to take a step-by-step approach, but he did not know where to start. Finally, he tried a small change, but was disappointed that it did not help and he stopped.

Change begins with the will to undergo it as much as it does with taking the first step towards it. It is not a point on a line; it is an process.

Change proceeds in stops and starts. Once it reaches one level, you do not proceed right away to the next. If you wish to keep the change in the long term, you have to see how it is helping, and act to maintain it. You must consolidate the change, get used to it, and have it become a stable part of your good habits.

The same principle applies each time you make a positive change. There are many forces that could undo it, including falling back into bad habits that the change is meant to replace. For psychological change to last, you must work at it. As it becomes more ingrained and part of your behavior it will become automatic and you will be ready for the next step. In order to move forward psychologically it is essential that you avoid moving backward. By giving change a chance, much of your behavior could blossom into widespread personal growth.

You might be asking yourself: How can I contemplate positive change when I feel so utterly down, or when a negative behavior is so built in that it has become a major part of my life?

Change is like the sand on a beach. The individual grains are dull, and hard to notice; but if you put them all together a beautiful beach is created.

Improvement proceeds in steps and, although each individual change seems so insignificant, they work together to give you a more positive outlook, better habits, and an inner satisfaction. You should tell yourself that even if your efforts seem insignificant, even a small change might set in motion a chain; and who knows where it might lead?Therefore, it is worth getting on the path to change and keeping on it.

One model of change envisions that it takes place in a series of five steps (in my book on development and causality, Springer SMB, 2011; the stages are called: coordination, hierarchization, systematization, multiplication, and integration). In the following, I present the model in terms of replacing bad habits or old ways with good habits or new ways.

1. In the first step in change, you move beyond your sense of stagnation of not experiencing any change and your sense of being overwhelmed without the capacity to do anything. You have a vision of how it could be better, and you imagine it, seeing yourself adopting good habits or new ways. You perceive the bad habit/ old way and the good/ habit new way side by side, and the contrast sets the stage for adopting the good habit or new way.

Therefore, the first step in positive change is to take the first step! By seeking different habits and ways, by seeing how the different ones would be better than the one you want to change, by selecting a feasible option among the choices, and by sticking to the new choice, you can make that first important step in positive change.

For example, if you want to exercise more, you start with the will, and then you go slow to begin, building up the effort over time. Similarly, if you want to develop a good habit or new way, you start with a wish, and then you should go slow in developing it and building on it.

2. In the second step of positive change, you practice the new habit or way so that it is a real part of who you are or what you do, even if it is just a small part. For example, in developing an exercise routine, perhaps you do only five minutes of exercise each day. Or, in developing better anger control, perhaps you do deep breathing exercises and tell yourself to watch your irritation before you answer back to someone.

3. In the third step of behavioral change, you make sure that the good, new way is a strong part of your daily behavior, and that you see how it can help even more. For example, you add new exercise routines. Or, you develop the right way of dealing with someone who has irritated you; the techniques that you are using give you some self-control and the time to think.

4. In the next step, the positive psychological change spreads, because you see the advantages and try out change in other areas. Perhaps you are motivated to socialize more because you feel better physically and psychologically from the exercise. Or, perhaps you exercise more, because you see the changes that you are making in your control of irritability and want to feel better physically, too.

5. In the last step of change, you realize your desire to achieve widespread change, at least for one major area in your life. There is no turning back, and the new habit or way is harmonized inside the core self and manifests consistently in your behavior. You are ready for major changes in other areas now that this improvement is in place. At this point, you realize that change for the better is the best.

About the Author
Gerald Young, Ph.D.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

More from Psychology Today

More from Gerald Young Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today