The Process of Change Part 2: Taking Action and Looking to the Future

This is a Part 2 of a 2-part series about change, written using knowledge about the psychology of change so that we can all be on the same page about the actual steps of making a change in your life, what it means to do the work of change, and how to see if someone is fronting to avoid actually changing and being responsible for their actions. Part 1 [LINK] explained what motivation is, what the process of change generally looks like, and how to give a meaningful apology. This Part 2 covers important parts of the planning, action, and maintenance stages in the process of change, explained in Part one: 1)what accountability is and what makes it a key to true change, self-reflection, and 2)learning how to set realistic goals/plans for change. My goal with this Part 2 is to: Help people be able to see if someone is actually doing the promised work of change and Put a spotlight on accountability. I want us to give just as much shine to accountability as we do to forgiveness. Because from a psychotherapy and mental health point of view, forgiveness is NOT needed for healing. At all. Someone can definitely heal and live a full life without ever forgiving the person(s) who have hurt them. But the flip side isn’t true. Accountability is SO IMPORTANT for healing. Without accountability, true healing and change will never quite be possible. So many people see change as something that happens to someone so they can be passive and watch change happen. But that’s not true. Change is active, both for individual people trying to make changes in their lives and also for the community as a whole.

“It’s Done. Let’s Just Move on.”

So they’ve apologized to others and have forgiven themselves, now it’s time to move on, right? Actually, no. Change is not about “moving on”. Moving on implies putting things behind you. And when someone puts something behind them, with time, they start to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind is real. So instead of “moving on” or “moving past” something, change is actually moving towards. The person wanting change now needs to start walking the walk: making the sometimes uncomfortable moves towards change and community-healing. Because yes, their actions do have an effect on the people around them and, on some level, their communities.  Change is not about looking good in public, getting people to forgive them so they can feel better/comfortable, or getting back to the way things were before as quickly as possible, etc. That’s not the kind of motivation that leads to lasting change. That could be what first pushed them to think about changing, sure, but after awhile, that’s not going to be enough to keep them going when no one is clapping or even looking at them anymore. Again, unless they are changing because they want to deep down and they see the change as worth it to them personally, the change is not going to last. Walking the walk isn’t always going to feel easy or good. It’s gonna feel like hard work sometimes because that’s what it is. 

Action and Accountability

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is nice. Someone forgiving themselves when they are ready to change is very important. I will say, though, that I see a lot more energy given to rushing towards automatic forgiveness. ESPECIALLY if this is someone with social power, someone most people like, and/or someone who makes popular music/art. Rushing to forgiveness messes with the process of change for 2 reasons. First, it assumes that forgiveness is a mandatory part of the process of change. And it is not. Forgiveness is each person’s choice. It’s not even a required part of healing. Someone could have pushed themselves, worked hard, and transformed themselves into a totally different person and it is still someone else’s prerogative to not forgive them and/or to never want to deal with them again. And someone can heal and live a full life without ever forgiving the person(s) who have harmed them and/or harmed others and that’s fine. Not everyone will forgive. Some people won’t be allowed in certain spaces as a direct result of something they have done to someone else. That’s called respecting other people’s boundaries.That’s also the consequences of their actions and they gotta deal with it. Could someone feel upset, frustrated, tired, etc. because of these consequences? Sure. And if they need to express those feelings to people, they should process those feelings with a consenting friend and/or therapist. That is exactly where those feelings belong. 

What is Accountability?

Less talked about than forgiveness, but more important to me, is accountability. Forgiveness is nice, but accountability is a key to long-lasting change. People feeling as if they are not accountable to anyone is one of the reasons for the abuse, neglect, etc. we see in the government, at our jobs, in our schools, in our communities, in our churches/places of worship, in our families, in our romantic relationships, in our friendships, etc. There is so little accountability going on throughout people’s lives that many people don’t seem to be clear on what accountability is or what it looks like in the real world. To be accountable means that someone is holding themselves responsible and/or is being held responsible for what they have done and/or for what they were supposed to do. Being accountable is also about accepting the consequences of your behavior and choices.

Accountable to Who, Exactly? 

We are all accountable to someone or something in our lives. From the time we are born, there is usually SOMEONE who can check us. Whether it’s parents, teachers, older peers, bosses, landlords, the IRS, etc., at some point, everyone has to answer to someone else. A person, who is serious about changing, holds themselves accountable to the people harmed. Accountability includes reparations. Specifically listening to the person(s) who have been harmed and basing your plans for change on what they need and don’t need from you. Being accountable means being committed to not repeating that behavior without demanding forgiveness and/or expecting rewards for changing. And to do that, you have respect the boundaries of other people and accept the potential social consequences of your actions. Another part of reparations is working on learning new ways of acting/thinking/speaking to take the place of the old ways. So when someone is facing (constructive) criticism about their lack of change and/or not being willing to learn why what they did was messed up, they are refusing to be held accountable and are refusing to really change.

Another level of accountability is being accountable to the community (I plan on writing a separate piece about community accountability later this year). In a better world, it is the community’s job to provide safety to its members. Close friends, relatives, people that the person trying to change respects, etc. should acknowledge the harm done and tell the person they are responsible for resolving it. Instead of what usually happens: Enabling their loved ones, trying to make the work of change as easy as possible, and/or making them feel comfortable with not changing at all. When people are not also held to higher standards by their loved ones, peers, and community, they feel like they can avoid the work of change. Where is the push to even start contemplating change when everyone is acting as if the person hasn’t done anything wrong? Part of community accountability is checking in people’s growth and being willing to receive that check-in. Holding yourself accountable to the community means being willing to be accountable for your actions and your words from the past and in the future. Strength isn’t just somebody saying something with their chest. It’s also to being answerable for what they do and the effect it has on other people. No gaslighting or lying. Just standing up and being willing, not to move on, but to continuing to move toward change by accepting feedback and constructive criticism. Similar to how I described the healing power of boundaries in the Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, personal and community accountability go a very long way in making positive long=lasting change possible. Accountability creates the right environment for change and encourages more growth in the future. Without personal and community accountability, people eventually won’t trust each other and strong community ties are not possible in that situation. Accountability is part of the work that keeps people and communities feeling safe. And safety and trust in each other is at the core of powerful movements and revolutions.

Working on Yourself

Self-Reflection:

So what does the work of change actually look like? Where does someone even start? I think one of the first things to do is to make time for self-reflection. And I’m not talking about taking 10 minutes to think about why this person was right and that person was wrong. Assuming by this point, you are at the place where you want to make changes for yourself, it’s not about what other people did anymore. Your main focus should be on yourself. I’m talking about setting time aside time for days, weeks, possibly months, to really dig into everything that happened, the role(s) you played, how your actions affected others, etc. You can use my life reassessment piece here as a starting point (it includes links to my piece on mindfulness so check that out) to help figure out how to start the process of taking stock of your life. Taking the time to look at your life bit by bit in an honest and deep way will give you a clearer idea of how to move forward without repeating the same life lessons over and over again. 

The process of self-reflection will take as long as it takes. Don’t rush it. This is a difficult process and many people prefer to rush through it to get to more feel-good parts, like a glamorous redemption/prodigal son story. But it’s the journey that’s important here, not to be cheesy. But it’s literal facts. If someone rushes through their process just so they can get back to the part where everyone likes them again, it’s a fake peace. They didn’t acknowledge that something in their life isn’t right. They didn’t come face to face with the need for change. Without acknowledging and understanding the entire realness of what happened, they can never truly apologize and feel sorry for their part in what happened. And if they don’t feel sorry, they will not change. That’s why I believe that no one should accept any kind of apology (or even worse, accept a non-apology) just to “keep the peace”. Again, that’s a fake peace and it won’t last. 

“I Mean, At Least I’m Honest”

Someone acknowledging what they did and/or “being honest/blunt” about the things they do that hurt people (low-key or high-key) is not enough. The work doesn’t stop there. No applause. No pat on the back just for honesty. That’s less than half the work. It’s good that someone knows themselves. Y’all know I love a mindful person. But my next question every time is, “Ok so now that you know you’re like this, what are you planning to do about it?” Because if the person doesn’t plan on doing anything serious to change in the long term, they can hurt someone just as badly as someone who isn’t aware of themselves at all. If someone feels like they aren’t able to get as deep as they need to on their own, that is probably a sign to start looking for a therapist for a professional outside point-of-view. Vet the therapist to make sure they already have the values you are trying to build in yourself. Just…just saying.

Setting Goals and Making Plans

Someone has been reflecting, is becoming more and more mindful, possibly working with a therapist, and feels ready for the next step, so what’s next? It’s time to take what you have learned about yourself (and are continuing to learn about yourself because self-reflection shouldn’t stop) and decide what needs to be done to change. This is where SMART goals come in. I learned about this from working at community health organizations for years and this is a great way for people to organize themselves and make sense of where they want to go. SMART goals (and objectives) are like the compass for change, making sure someone doesn’t lose track of where they are and where they are going. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.  

Specific

Meaning each goal focuses on 1 thing the person wants to improve. Saying “I wanna be a less angry person” doesn’t do anything here. It’s too general. A more specific goal would be “I want to stop getting into arguments with my coworkers”. Being clear and specific with goals is very important to keeping a person’s motivation going. If a goal feels too big, impossible, etc., people are more likely to burn out or give up on changing. Keeping the goals specific and easy to keep track of makes them easier to accomplish. 

Measurable

Meaning can someone measure their progress with this goal and how will they know when they have accomplished this goal? That 1st goal (“I wanna be a less angry person”) is too general to measure progress. How would someone define “less angry”? What would that even look like? The 2nd goal (“I want to stop getting into arguments with my coworkers”) is easier to measure someone’s progress with. Someone can literally track how many arguments someone is getting into and watch as the number goes up or down. 

Achievable

Meaning how realistic the goal is, depending on the person’s situation. How do they plan on getting this done and what do they need realistically to do this? Do they need to start taking classes, buy some books, consult with some people, etc.? 

Relevant

Meaning is this goal even related to the thing they want to change? Is this goal actually helpful to the person’s growth and/or to the person(s) affected by their actions? Is this the right time for this goal? 

Time-bound

Meaning there’s a realistic deadline by when either the goal will be achieved or someone will check in by that time to see what to do next. What can the person do today to make working towards this goal easier tomorrow? Every SMART goal has at least 2 objectives (mini goals) to break down the goal into smaller, easier steps. 

The great thing about someone organizing their goals for change into something like SMART goals is it helps them organize and make sense of a process that can feel very huge and overwhelming. Taking the time to plan the next steps sets a solid foundation for change and helps a person remain accountable to themselves and to the people around them. And someone organizing their life into SMART goals, in general, is a great way to approach other things they want to accomplish in their life.

There is always going to be someone promising change or promising to change. And it’s important for us to be able to know how to recognize this process/work in others when it’s time to hold people accountable for their actions. Awareness is always key. And taking the time to stop and critically think about a situation is 1 of the tools that will set us free. Change is a process that lasts someone’s whole life and knowing more about the process of change and what change looks like will help you figure out if someone is really walking the walk. Remember that motivation for true, long-lasting change comes from within and with the understanding that 1)forgiveness is not mandatory and 2)that there are justifiable social consequences (For example: other people setting their own personal boundaries aka “cancelling”) that happen as a result of their actions. We as individuals must hold ourselves accountable and push ourselves to grow everyday towards the better future we want. And we as a community must hold each other accountable so we can create the environment for the growth and trust in each other that makes the true change we fight for possible.

Thanks for reading. The next post will be a Reader’s Request on Sunday 4/14/19, covering 1)estrangement after you’ve cut off contact with family, and other people who were once close to you, 2)mourning the lost relationships of still living people, and 3)how to manage the people in your life who still have connections with those estranged people.

The Process of Change Part 1: What is Change?

It seems like every day someone is promising to change or promising to lead people towards a larger change. Unfortunately, not every promise turns into real action. Many promises end up falling short of what was promised or end up being outright lies. And there’s a lot of misinformation on what true long-lasting change is, what the process of change looks like, and how to recognize this process/work in others when it’s time to hold people accountable for their actions. Like the other things I’ve written for this site, the information in this piece will be based in psychotherapy and research-supported techniques/strategies. This piece draws from techniques called Motivational Interviewing, created by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick and described in their manual “Motivational Interviewing” 3rd edition. Motivational interviewing was created for people who have chaotic substance use (Drugs use 101 piece here for more information on the different types of drug use, etc.) and who want to change how they use drugs, but are having issues making/maintaining that change in their lives. These techniques are not just for substance use issues. Motivational Interviewing (aka MI) can help people, in general, understand what change looks like and the work realistically necessary for long term change. This piece is not a replacement for therapy and/or working with a mental health professional trained to use MI techniques. The purpose of this 2-part series is to use the values of MI and the knowledge about the psychology of change so that we can all be on the same page about 1)the actual steps of making a change in your life, 2)what it means to have done the work of change, and 3)how to see if someone is pulling the wool over your eyes to avoid actually changing and being held accountable. This part one explains what motivation is, what the process of change generally looks like, and how to give a meaningful apology. 

Motivation

Motivation is basically a person’s desire to do something. Motivation can come from outside a person: rewards/prizes, paychecks, laws/rules, punishments, grades, bribes, etc. are all examples of things that can motivate a person to do something. And those definitely work to some degree and to some level. But at a certain point, after some time, according to research and many people’s personal experiences, outside motivation starts to lose its power after awhile. Especially if that’s the only thing getting them out of bed. As we all could guess, if their heart isn’t really in it and they don’t actually want to do something deep down, eventually they are going to feel less and less like bothering to do it. Whether someone is doing it to please other people, to get some heat off their neck, because they think it’s something they should want to do, etc., outside motivation is a car that will eventually run out of gas. It’s just not a renewable resource. When they eventually run out of that first bit of fuel, they’re gonna need to tap into the rainy-day reserve and that is internal motivation: the desire and drive that comes from inside someone. The person has to want it. That push has to come from inside them for any kind of change to be possible. True, lasting, long-term change can’t be forced into someone or shamed into someone. Again, point blank: a person has to want to change for themselves, for their own personal reasons (whatever those reasons are), and then the change will be real and long-lasting.

The Stages of Change

Change is complicated. The Stages of Change help to make sense of what this complicated process can look like in a way that does not take the humanity and/or power away from people. The process of change doesn’t go in a straight line from stage to stage and it can be very complicated because life and people are complicated. Before I begin explaining the stages of change, I want to talk a little bit about the importance of honest self-reflection and mindfulness. When was the last time you listened to the way you talk to and/or about yourself? 1 exercise you could try to really get a sense of how you talk to and/or about yourself: Pay attention and write down the things you say (and think) to and/or about yourself for a week. And then at the end of the week reflect on what you see. What tone do you have with yourself? How would you feel if somebody else talked to and/or about you like that? How do you usually motivate yourself when you want to change or gain a new habit? MI refers to all that as your “self-talk”. Self-talk is very important in the process of change. If your self-talk is mainly focused on how you aren’t going to be able to change or on all the reasons you should stay the same, it is going to be much harder to keep that motivation to change in the long run. That’s why it is very important to be mindful of your self-talk throughout this process. You are the narrator and the change-maker in your life story.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

Meaning not even considering change. The person isn’t even seeing a legit reason to start thinking about changing at this point. When someone is in the pre-contemplation stage, no amount of pushing, nagging, shaming, reasoning, etc. is going to actually get them to change. All the interventions and even all the tears in the world won’t actually do much because there is not even a drop of motivation to change coming from inside them. As a therapist, I wouldn’t even bother wasting my time on something a client doesn’t see as a problem and I wouldn’t expect them to change that part of their life at all. As a non-therapist, trying to figure out if someone intends on changing or if they are still in pre-contemplation: this is where you’d watch someone’s actions instead of getting distracted with what they’re saying. Someone in the pre-contemplation stage could lie and tell you that they are ready for change, but their actions tell on themselves. What is their track record? And how does that compare with what they are doing right now? Are they making active moves towards learning more, self-reflecting, respecting boundaries, seeking community accountability, etc? What are they doing right now?

Stage 2: Contemplation

This is when a person is starting to think about changing. They start to weigh the pros and cons of changing vs staying the same. In the contemplation stage, people even start to imagine what their future lives would look like if they changed. But someone in the this stage is not feeling fully committed to changing. They’re still thinking it over. MI calls this feeling ambivalence. Ambivalence is something we are all familiar with on some level. Ambivalence is the discomfort, the emotional battle that happens when someone wants multiple conflicting things at the same time.  Both wanting to change and to stay the same. In the seesaw-like battle of ambivalence, once someone leans too close to 1 side, the other side always looks better. As I’ve said before, ambivalence is an important part of the process of change. It’s part of living life. A good example of ambivalence would be when a person (Friend A) is talking to their friend (Friend B) about someone Friend B is thinking about breaking up with. Every time Friend A brings up a reason to stay, Friend B argues passionately to leave. And when Friend A brings up a reason to leave, Friend B argues passionately to stay. It seems really confusing from the outside and it is really confusing for the person dealing with the ambivalence too. Because Friend B BOTH really wants to stay for seemingly strong reasons and really wants to leave for other seemingly strong reasons all at the same time. Ambivalence has to be worked through in order for lasting change to be possible. 

Stage 3: Preparation: 

The person has contemplated change, weighed the pros and cons, started imagining what their future could look like, and now has started planning the steps they would have to take in order to make the changes. Ambivalence can still pop up during this stage, especially as the person really starts to realize how much work it is to make these changes in their lives. Although it is important for the person to have a solid system of people to encourage and support them in changing, the planning has to be led by the person trying to change. No one can do this work for them. That would undermine the whole process and the person would never actually learn and change. Planning should be realistic and should pay attention to the person’s limitations, their personal boundaries, their need for self-care, and their accountability to those who have been harmed and to the wider community. After the planning is over, it is important to look over the plan to make sure that it still works and that the person still wants to do this. There’s always time to see if the plan for change can be updated to be longer-lasting, more realistic, and/or more compassionate to those who have been harmed, for example.

Stage 4: Action

This is where a person turns their plans into action. It may start with small steps, but it is clear that is these are first steps towards a larger goal. Especially in the case of someone having done harm, this is the time for taking active, clear, pretty easy to see steps towards change. Even something as small as saying, “I don’t know enough about that topic to have a knowledgeable opinion on that. So I’d rather not speak on it”. That is a solid starting point by the way. In the action stage, the person’s self-talk focuses much, much more on changing than staying the same. As a person’s ambivalence starts to go away, they feel more and more motivated to do more of the work of change. That all said, ambivalence doesn’t quite go away completely. Motivation to change could go up and down throughout this stage too. Change is work. And it’s not always going to feel glamorous or noble. There are times when doing the work of change feels uncomfortable and someone might wonder if it would just be easier to go back to the way they used to be. That’s why making sure someone’s motivation comes from within and having a solid support system is important. 

Stage 5: Maintenance:

At this point, the person has made the changes in their life. But that’s not the end. Change is not a 1-time deal. No setting it and forgetting it here. Change is, again, a process. A life long process. And you’ll make mistakes because you are human, but a mistake is not the end. Just because you messed up in your journey doesn’t mean you have license to go back to the way you were before. That mistake was a life lesson and can be a stepping stone if you put in the motivation and work afterwards. Life is about change, growth, and taking what you learned from the past and using that constantly evolving wisdom to make better decisions in the future.

Saying “I’m Sorry”

A lot of y’all don’t know what an apology looks like and what an apology means. And this matters because I see these non-apologies written on the Notes app and people defending what’s ready an attempt to shut everyone up and move on. When everyone is on the same page about what an apology is and looks like, it’s easier to spot a front. An apology is an acknowledgment of wrong-doing and a plan for future action. You need both. There’s no change without recognizing the effects your actions have had on your life and the lives of others and THEN taking active steps towards future change.

An apology has 3 parts:

  1. What are they apologizing for? – They should be able to describe what they are apologizing for clearly in their own words. This shows that they are aware of what they did.

  2. How are they acknowledging the effect of what they did on other people? They should be able to describe the impact their actions had on other people clearly (with enough detail so they’re not speaking in general) in their own words. It’s important that they are specific.

  3. How are they acknowledging the effect of what they did on other people? They should be able to describe the impact their actions had on other people clearly (with enough detail so they’re not speaking in general) in their own words. It’s important that they are specific. 

  4. How are they going to change in the future? They should be able to break down specifics of how they are planning to change. They need to show some evidence that they are invested in the long-term work of change. Part of this work is continuing to be open to critique as they continue to learn, unlearn, and change. This isn’t a one and done situation. Especially if we are talking about unlearning bigotry and hatred. 


Change is a process. Change is work. And change is ultimately very obvious. People shouldn’t have to be close the person or “know their heart” to see that they have changed or are working towards change. And I’m not talking about large showy gestures here. I’m stating the obvious: when someone is working to change, they start to walk in the spirit of that change and people can see it on them/in them. Y’all know what I mean. Real growth and learning changes the course of someone’s life. They give up old ways because they know better now. They leave certain things behind them, make other decisions, and act in ways that make it clear that something is different in their lives. 


Thanks for reading. The next post will be the 2nd part of this Process of Change 2-part series, covering looking to the future, the kinds of work needed to change, what accountability is, and how it is important for true change to be possible.