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Maximizing Change

A closeup view of a bright blue outdoor staircase with a person with orange sneakers running up.

We make hundreds of decisions every day. Many of them have become so habitual, we don’t even think of them as decisions. This can be a great thing, such as when we form healthy habits that improve our lives. Going into a new year, many people resolve to make certain changes in habits and lifestyle. Or, people resolve to add something to their lives, whether it is a hobby, savings fund, or a new group of friends. Needless to say, the New Year often begins with bright intentions, yet for many of us, we find it difficult to maintain the changes throughout the year. There are likely many reasons for this, but one of them might be because we don’t really understand where we are in the process of change. Perhaps most people are not aware that there is a mental process we go through when establishing a change in our lives.

A little over 20 years ago, Carlos C. DiClemente and J.O. Prochaska, researchers of alcoholism, developed a five-stage model of change to help professionals guide and motivate patients in addiction recovery (Gold, 2016). Below are the Stages of Change with some explanations and examples. As you read through the stages, think of an area of your life you’ve been considering changing, or are in the midst of changing. You might desire for someone else to change as well. Knowing more about the change process can inform expectations and decrease feelings of shame or blame.


In this stage, we are not aware the problem is a problem, or we are in denial. We find ourselves justifying the behavior and do not have the intention of changing.  Sometimes we simply want to give up because we’ve attempted change before without gaining the desired results. We could come off as resistant, rebellious, resigned, or rationalizing (Gold, 2016).

Lana’s family complains she is critical and negative, and this is hurting her relationship with them. She seems to be in conflict with someone most of the time. When confronted by her spouse about going to counseling, she explodes in anger and blames everyone around her.


In this stage, we are aware and admit the problem, yet we are undecided about what to do. We feel conflicted. We want to both change and not change. In this stage, we might be helped by writing down the pros and cons of changing in a “decisional balance sheet” (“The Transtheorectical Model,” 2017). This method helps us to see what we are gaining and losing by not changing, and what we gain and lose by changing. In other words, we are giving ourselves a reality check. In this stage, it’s not unusual for us to have more pros on the side of not changing. We might have a lot of emotional attachment to the current behavior.

Lana’s spouse moves out the house and says she doesn’t want to come back until Lana does something about her criticism and negativity. After several weeks, the loneliness, regret, and fear of losing her family motivates Lana to seek counseling. In the counseling session, she explains how angry she feels about being left by her spouse, but she can see how her behavior has led to this separation. She doesn’t know what to do to deal with her negativity and anger and doesn’t really know why she feels this way. After a few more sessions with her counselor and brief interactions with her spouse, she sees the need for making a change and makes the decisional balance sheet to really understand what it would mean for her address her behavior.


This is a vital stage that is easy to underestimate. We want or expect to jump into action. Yet most of us are not actually ready to sustain the action. In the Preparation stage, we have made some progress toward change, such as contacting a professional for help, joining a support group or other place where people are enacting similar changes, and make behavioral modifications that set the stage for taking action.

Lana has already been working with a counselor, and now she has identified some of the reasons she feels critical, negative, and angry much of the time. She is using mindfulness to become more aware of her feelings of judgment and criticism and starts to notice that she has been rejecting herself, as well. She decided to meet with a friend weekly to talk about this process and to have a positive influence in her life.


In the Action stage, we have made significant strides in behavior changes that can be observed in our lifestyle, or way of being. We are living out new behaviors frequently and relapsing less.

Over the past eight months, Lana has been meeting with a counselor, improving relationships with her friends and children, and has more positive interactions with her spouse. She found that her workplace was contributing to her poor attitude and self-worth, so she started taking classes related to a career she is interested in and working for another employer within a positive work environment. The people around her have mentioned she seems less critical and negative, and she doesn’t get angry or stay angry as often. Her children seem happier around her, and her spouse has talked about getting back together.


In this stage, we do not cycle through the previous stages. We are more confident that we will not relapse into the old behavior. We have sustained change long enough to not think consciously about it. We may need to refresh our skills and not grow overly confident, as this could lead to relapse.

A little over a year later, Lana’s spouse returned home and they are all getting along better than before. Lana has lessened the frequency of therapy and now attends for check-ins, sometimes with her spouse. She became interested in delving deeper spiritually and attends a place of worship while continuing a mindfulness/meditation practice daily. She asked forgiveness from the people she hurt and has been working on forgiving herself. She developed new communication skills and acceptance of herself and others as “people in progress.” Her overall view of life is more uplifting.

As the above explanation and hypothetical example show, “change implies phenomena occurring over time” (“The Transtheorectical Model,” 2017). Change is more than a singular event. Great philosophers have articulated the virtue—and equally important—the necessity of making change a habit. We must practice a behavior frequently for it to become a part of who we are. This process does not occur in isolation, either. If we don’t currently have reliable people as supports, we must find them. This can begin by attending an appointment with a healthcare professional that meets our particular need. There is no shame in reaching out for help. Quite the opposite: change takes courage. Maximizing change is hard but don’t give up, no matter how many times you’ve tried before. Those times could be preparation for action. This could be the year.