What stage of change are you in?

Change is inherent to life. Things can’t remain the same for eternity.  We can’t remain unchanged for a lifetime. We aren’t the ones we were five years ago, and certainly ten years from now we won’t be like we are today. But many times, if we aren’t the ones who initiate, plan and make changes, they will take us by surprise and we’ll feel that “things happen to us” against our will.

The main goal of psychotherapy is to help the person who asks for support to make a change at a psychological level. People come in therapy because they feel unhappy, because they can no longer manage their current life situations, because they feel anxious, depressed or have other manifestations that disturb their functionality, because they are unhappy with certain aspects of their lives (relationships, job), because they want to overcome certain fears or because they want to personally develop, to improve  different attributes of their personality. But many people, when they go to therapy, they expect change to come from the outside - they want other people or the circumstances to change miraculously. They want all their problems to disappear, but nothing changes if you don’t change. So, when you change, you often change the things around you - it's enough a single component of a system to change, for the entire system to transform.

Why is it hard to make changes? Because we have to give up our comfort zone, because we have to make an effort to learn new things (thinking patterns and the way we react also change by making a conscious effort), because we are afraid of the unknown, because we don’t trust ourselves that we will handle new situations etc. In psychotherapy, in order for the change to occur, it’s necessary for the person to be sufficiently motivated and confident in his/her ability to change (and take responsibility for this) in order to start defeating his/her fears and taking steps in the desired direction. It’s necessary to acknowledge and accept his/her current situation to know where he/she is and where he/she is heading.

First of all, it should be noted that change doesn’t happen suddenly, but there are some stages a person needs to go through, and during these stages there may be fluctuations concerning the recognition of the problem, changing of mind and making a decision.

Thus, in the first stage, the precontemplation stage, the person doesn’t realize that he/she has a problem and doesn’t want to make changes in the near future. Although he/she doesn’t feel well, he/she can’t figure out exactly what's going on with him/her. Although people around him/her are aware of his/her problem and draw attention to it, the person resists identifying and recognizing that problem. In such situations, the person may come to therapy because he/she has been forced or convinced by others to ask for help. Once the person becomes more aware, he/she heads toward the second stage of change, contemplation.

In the contemplation stage, the person is caught between the desire for change and the lack of action. Which means that he/she begins to think about making changes, but at the same time he/she remains in the same state. There is an awareness that there is a problem but there is no commitment to act. In order to be able to move on to the next stage, preparation, the person has to find more arguments in favor of change and less arguments in favor of maintaining his/her current state.

The preparation stage refers to the fact that the person starts to make plans for the future in the direction of his/her own change, he/she thinks about strategies and sets his/her goals. He/she is already aware of the problem and he/she has an intention to act. So the next stage of change is action.

In the action stage, the person is already beginning to change his/her behavior to overcome his/her problems. Major changes occur, visible to others. Through repeated actions and sustained effort, the person is closer and closer to achieve his/her goals. In order to maintain the new life direction, it’s necessary to prevent relapse.

This new stage, the maintenance stage, refers to the efforts made by a person not to return to past behaviors and to reinforce the benefits of change. Although there may be a relapse, as mentioned above, it’s important the person to be aware of that, to overcome it and to return as soon as possible to the new beneficial behaviors.

In conclusion, it’s important to understand that change is a process that requires first of all to be aware of your problems and to wish to overcome them. It takes time, effort, patience, motivation, action and perseverance.

There is no such thing as a magical wand for fixing your problems, there is no Savior (even though most of the times this role is given to the therapist). There is, in change, something more valuable - taking responsibility for your own situation and for change. And even though sometimes there are relapses or the temptation to turn back to the same vicious circle, in the end not even this thing is so bad as the one who fell would consider - the important thing is to get up and move forward with determination!

 Dr. Ursula Sandner


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