Personal change is a process, not an event
by Fe Robinson
Psychotherapy is a change intervention. People don't generally come to see me because they want things to change at they are. Today I want to reflect on where change can come unstuck, and some of the things to bear in mind before you embark on it.
Prochaska and diclemente developed a way of thinking about change that I find useful. Their cycle has six elements to it. It's not a linear model, you can move back and forth within it. It recognises that change does not always happen successfully, and even if it does, that it might not be sustained. I like its realism, with the focus on the person having to initiate and sustain the change for themselves, if it does not come from within it is unlikely to last.
In this first phase, the client may be dissatisfied with how things are, but they may not be aware there is a problem relating to them, or that change is possible or desirable. They may be focused out on the world and what is wrong with others, they have no intention of changing anything for themselves.
As awareness grows, the client may begin to consider that there is a problem, and that they perhaps need to change if they want something different to happen. They may be exploring and balancing the pros and cons, but at this stage they have made no commitment to do anything differently.
At this stage, the client has an intention to act. They have developed the belief that they can change, and that change is desirable.
This is the point at which the client begins to do something differently. They try out new behaviours, they say and do different things, and they are thinking differently about it.
Action is not the end of the journey. The tough bit comes when the change needs to be embedded and sustained. We may need to change elements of our environment, and other habits to enable the change to be continued, to get it to the stage where it feels more normal.
Sometimes, we are not able to sustain change in the longer term. We may take our eye off the ball, and fall back into old ways of behaving.
When this happens, we need to explore what has happened, what helped and what hindered, so that we can begin a new change cycle. We go back into pre-contemplation before we notice, and hopefully into contemplation when we become aware, and we can spiral deeper into personal change towards our goal.
I find two of these phases come up repeatedly as stumbling blocks in my client's journeys.
Firstly, it is easier to see how others are contributing to our problems than to take responsibility for our own end of the pattern. It can take empathy, time, and deep self-reflection to begin to notice our deep patterns and their impact in our life. It can be a challenge to develop insight without self-blaming. Safe, therapeutic holding of the discomfort of this process is essential if we are to move through it. Since we are not an island, since we are deeply interconnected, it makes no sense to judge and blame ourselves. It helps more to understand, to see the connectivity, and to contemplate what now can be done, seeing and knowing what has been noticed.
Secondly, once a change has been made, it is tempting to be all delight, and to feel relieved. Yesss...I did it! What can then be overlooked is the graft of embedding and sustaining our change, of evolving the ways we support ourselves to make this the new normal. Changing habits takes application and steadfastness. No change technique can magically resolve everything, evolution not revolution is the course of these things. This is not what people much want to hear, and yet, it is my experience thus far.
If you want to make changes, contemplation is a really important thing. Take your time to consider things in the round, the likely consequences, the benefits, and the costs. Building your motivation up front and thinking holistically can stand you in very good stead for success in the long term.