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.

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