How can we as humans change?


Edward Howell VI

How a flower grows and changes. (Edward Howell VI, Unsplash)

Nick Sack, Managing Editor

Lately, I’ve been thinking about personal change.

Physically speaking, the human body fully replaces itself (or at least most of itself), around every seven years. 

However, mental change is a different story and takes a little bit more effort than our cells on autopilot.

I’ve been curious about changing certain aspects about myself. Like most people, there are things I wish I could do better or refinements I’d like to make to my character, but I wasn’t sure where to start, or how people can even change at all.

In researching about change, I was drawn to an article written by Lori Gottlieb in Literary Hub, which I highly recommend reading!

In this article, Gottlieb chronicles her discussions with one of her patients who wished to change her alcoholic tendencies, and while that’s not the issue I’m looking to solve, I found it interesting nonetheless. 

She starts by explaining “the transtheoretical model of behavior change,” developed by a psychologist named James Prochaska in the 1980s, which chronicles the five stages of change:

Stage One: Pre-contemplation

Stage Two: Contemplation

Stage Three: Preparation

Stage Four: Action

Stage Five: Maintenance

Before you can change anything, you’ll be in the first stage of pre-contemplation, essentially where you’ll be when you notice a problem. Gottlieb uses the example of one of her patients, a woman named Charlotte who had issues with social drinking but failed to connect her own drinking to her mother’s drinking problem. 

We’ve all been in this stage, though probably not as challenging as alcoholism. I know I’ll complain to my friends all day long about how frustrated I am with my work ethic or with a relationship, and they’ll tell me a myriad of solutions, but I’ll resist every single one of them. 

“Therapists aren’t persuaders,” Gottlieb says. “We can’t convince an anorexic to eat. We can’t convince an alcoholic not to drink. We can’t convince people not to be self-destructive, because for now, the self-destruction serves them.”

The second stage, contemplation, is often characterized by resistance. In this stage, people are willing to admit and talk about their problem, and they aren’t opposed to personal action to solve the issue, but they have difficulty starting. 

Gottlieb notes that people usually begin therapy during this phase. This phase will typically manifest itself as excuses, where “people procrastinate or self-sabotage as a way to stave off change—even positive change—because they’re reluctant to give something up without knowing what they’ll get in its place.”

What makes contemplation so difficult is losing the past and facing the anxiety of the future. This can be frustrating for friends and even ourselves to witness, as we follow the cycle of doing the same thing over and over until we’re ready to change. 

I believe this is the phase I’m in currently, just trying over and over to do the same thing, but I’m still working up the courage to change my path. 

For those who continue on the path of change, however, they find themselves in phase three, preparation. For many, this phase looks like an inner bargaining between demons. Choosing to admit fault, moving past spite, accepting that someone else won’t change. “I choose not to change my habits until you treat me differently,” as Gottlieb says. 

It takes time, sometimes years, to accept reality and to move forward into the fourth phase and most challenging phase, action. 

The action stage involves confronting your challenges head-on, looking for solutions and directing yourself towards success. For some, this takes the shape of an alcohol rehabilitation program. For others, it looks like finally letting your partner know that they cannot keep delaying their planned move to your city or finally removing that toxic person from your life. 

Obviously, the goal is to reach maintenance, the final phase, but that’s not to deny that people will undoubtedly backtrack, or fall back a stage or two. Stress and other triggers can result in a relapse, but that’s the risk we run when attempting to better ourselves. 

Change is difficult. It’s tedious. It can take an upsetting amount of time and effort, but change is possible.

We just have to be willing to confront our truth.