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.

Boundaries 201: Bringing the Skills Home Part 2

So this piece is both 1)a part 2 to a 2-part series about setting boundaries around family and other people close to you in your life (Here’s a link to Part 1 here) and 2)a sequel to the intro to setting boundaries post I wrote in August (Intro piece here). Please take a chance to check those 2 out just to make sure we’re all on the same page about what boundaries are and how they can improve your personal and professional life generally. Part 1 focused on setting boundaries in regards to letting go of and/or limiting time around toxic people. This part 2 focuses on using boundaries as tools to build and make all the relationships in your life even stronger. Again, setting clear, firm boundaries is a way to take care of yourself. Strong boundaries are both a sign of and what happens when you start to truly know yourself. Building self awareness is key to setting boundaries. Boundaries are also about building community and your social support system. Having a solid set of people who you really trust and who’s really for you is key to having good mental health and life satisfaction. Especially for Black and brown people and ESPECIALLY for LGBTQAI people of color. Community (safe, strong, healthy community) is life.

Like I mentioned in the first part: strong, clear boundaries can be like emotional and psychological armor. Acting as protection and as a way to save your energy levels and your physical and mental health. Weak, vague boundaries are draining. Firm boundaries keep you going for longer, like fixing a leak in the gas tank so you can keep doing what you need to do. Boundaries aren’t always about separating yourself from or limiting time around things and people. They are also about building and nurturing families (blood and chosen) and other relationships/connections in your life. Boundaries are 1 huge part of the foundation of stable, healthy relationships whether we are talking about relationships with family, friends, coworkers/colleagues, romantic relationships, etc. They aren’t just things you set up when times are bad/rough though. Clear, strong boundaries on the regular protect the relationship like watering and caring for a plant and watching it grow. Healthy relationships don’t just grow on their own. People always say relationships take work without really describing the kind of work that needs to be done. Setting clear, strong boundaries and maintaining them together in each relationship is part of that work. Boundaries are about having compassion and respect for 1)your limits and the limits of other people, 2)everyone’s needs for stability and safety, and 3) each other’s wants and goals, etc. Life is hard. Being with the people close to you should be a peaceful break from all the nonsense, not a part of the stress.

Y’all remember my self care piece from earlier this year in March? In that piece, I’ll link it here, I talked about Spoon Theory and I added a quote from the creator of Spoon Theory, Christine Miserandino, as she explains the concept of Spoon Theory to a friend: “I don’t have room for wasted time, or wasted “spoons” and I chose to spend this time with you.” In this quote, she is aware of her limitations (how many spoons she has) so she sets boundaries to avoid draining time/energy AND to stay connected to people she chooses. Again, life is so hard, especially living in a bigoted society that wants you dead/disappeared. Every breath is revolutionary, but it is still draining. Part of self care is being kind to yourself and being aware of the energy you have and how you spend it. Boundaries help you turn your close relationships into mobile safe spaces. They allow you to be more able to open up and to have times in your life where you can really be yourself. Knowing what your limits are, clearly expressing them to people, and then having those limits respected can make spending time with the people closest to you even better.

On the other hand, having your boundaries constantly ignored and/or disrespected weakens and damages relationships after awhile on top of hurting your physical and mental health. There’s a reason so many people feel like they have no one they can really talk to or really trust/be real with. There’s a reason so many people feel like they have to front all the time. Or why there’s this running “joke” of tweeting about depression/suicidal feelings on the TL and then acting like they are “just tweets” when someone asks you about it privately. That’s a clear sign that so many people don’t have real support systems and don’t feel comfortable being real and/or vulnerable with the people around them. That’s how you can feel lonely surrounded by a crowd of people. Clear, firm, mutually respected boundaries between you and your people create an environment where all the fronts can be dropped at the door.

Let’s talk about some specific ways to nourish the relationships in your life through setting and maintaining clear, strong boundaries. All relationships take work. In this society, people are pressured to focus all their efforts and energies into romantic relationships and all the other kinds of relationships in our lives are just supposed to work themselves out somehow. Like I’ve mentioned before in the Part 4 of the parenting series here and in my piece on suicide (link here), it’s “very Western, very colonizer, to rely on a nuclear family (spouse and kids) for everything”. We have all been taught that romantic connections and the relationships we have with spouses are the ultimate relationships to search our whole lives for. That way of thinking is very limiting. When we only focus on 1 type of connection in our lives and that relationship ends or that person dies, what is left? Many of our elders are vulnerable and many people generally feel unfulfilled because this society teaches us to put all of our future plans, hopes, and dreams on 1 person. Some people won’t even go places and will pause whole areas of their lives so they can do it with a romantic partner. A lot of the time, that seems to lead to regrets and resentments for many people in the long run. I’ve noticed that people have stronger support systems and feel like more people truly got their back when they start to give the other kinds of relationships in their lives a similar kind of effort.

Some Basic Suggestions for Boundaries that Strengthen Connections:

Being honest and clear about your needs/wants
  • Even if that honesty feels awkward, etc. It might feel uncomfortable at first because you aren’t used to it, but it will get easier for everyone after awhile.

  • “I feel [xyz] right now and I need to [abc].”

  • “I need time to think about this, let me get back to you in an hour/tomorrow, etc” – Always give a specific time and keep that appt, being respectful of everyone’s time.
Checking in with loved ones

Check in with your homies in general (We good?)


  • Avoid surface level bs. This isn’t like the “How are you?” “I’m good. Chilling. Just trying to be like you” lie we all do. This is about asking and actually wanting to know the real answer. And being ready to really do something if there is something that needs to be handled in y’all’s relationship.

  • It’s better to check in as you go and get in the habit of asking each other “Yo, we good? In general, how we doing on your end?” Again, this kind of thing isn’t just for romantic relationships. Many of you and your homies would feel closer if you were able to talk about the little things you might be keeping inside over the years. Little things add up. Misunderstandings, crossed wires, other not exactly arguments, etc. all add up. Wouldn’t hurt to get it out there and always be on the same page

Or checking in after a disagreement

  • Avoid snark/sarcasm. If you are feeling some type of way, this isn’t the time for a check in. This is where knowing yourself and being accurately aware of your own emotions is key (Check out Mindfulness post here for some suggestions on how to be more attuned with yourself and your emotions. It’s hard to check in with another person and talk to them about what’s going on for you if you don’t know what to look for in yourself. So start there, within yourself.

  • After you take the time to get a clear understanding of your emotions, check in. And if you need to apologize, don’t focus on wanting the person forgive you. Focus on what you can do or not do to help the other person heal in their own time from what you did.

  • “I hear you want x and I’ll respect that.” If you start to slip back into old habits, checking in with yourself regularly will help you keep a handle on that for yourself. Checking in with people does not take the place of doing the work yourself to be self aware. Self awareness makes checking in with people easier.

Checking in as a chance to update old boundaries if necessary

  • People change and our situations in life change so boundaries will probably need to get updated from time to time. Listen to your mind/body and to the people in your lives to know when it’s time for an update.
Respecting physical and psychological limits
  • Ask if people want to be touched.

  • Ask if people want to talk right now and if they don’t, scheduling a time that works for the both of you and keeping to that time out of respect for each other.

  • Gain consent even from people who you have history with, you never know someone too much to seek out enthusiastic consent.


Learning how to set clear and firm boundaries is 1 of the most important skills one can learn in life. The benefits strong boundaries have on life satisfaction, personal happiness, and one’s mental health is amazing. And being able to not only use boundaries for your personal mental health and building your social support system, but also to use boundaries as tools to make all the relationships in your life even stronger/better is a serious pro-tip. Taking care of yourself, your loved ones, and your community all with the same skill.


Thanks for reading. The next post will be after the holidays on Sunday 1/13/19 about checking in with yourself  and reassessing your whole life for the new year.