Making Changes That Last

“My wife thinks I have a problem with my anger. I get mad, I’ll admit that, but it’s not my fault. She sets me off, and so do the kids. They know I have a bad temper, and the things I ask of them are reasonable; keep the house sparkling, get A’s in school and let me do my work in peace. There would be no problem if they would just do as I say.”

The man who said this in my office a few weeks ago was in the process of making a change in his life. So were the following people.

“I’ve been sober for seven years. I can remember a time when I thought that drinking a twelve pack on a Saturday night was normal. Now I know that even one beer will be too much.”

“We were doing really well with the Couple Communication at first, but for the past few weeks we seem to have slipped back into our old angry ways of talking to each other.”

Change. To a person, everyone who enters my office is looking for change. They either want to change themselves or someone else and that is a reasonable request. But how exactly does change occur?

According to John Norcross, author of the book Changing for Good, all behavior change follows a fairly predictable sequence, and what he identifies as Precontemplation is the first in the succession. The primary characteristic of this stage is the belief that there is no problem. Like the abusive husband above who yells at his wife and children but thinks the problem is theirs for not meeting his demands. If he doesn’t have a problem, then he doesn’t have to change.

Once evidence starts to accumulate in favor of a difficulty, we have now entered the Contemplation stage of change. Like the cigarette smoker who can see the connection between smoking and her chronic cough, people in this stage are able to see the relationship between a behavior and it’s consequences.

It is essential to stay in the contemplation stage of change until enough information has been processed to move to the next stage, Action, and this is hard for most of us. It is common for me to hear pleas for help to make change happen faster. My advice is to stay in contact with the problem, be present, and when enough data has been amassed the scale will tip and action will be taken. If we push ourselves in to action prematurely, the chances for success diminish. This is verified by looking at programs that are designed to control eating or smoking and skip the first steps in the change process.

John Norcross states that until the reasons for making a change outweigh the reasons for staying the same by about two to one, the change being attempted will not be successful.

If you are considering a change, ask yourself what you stand to gain. Make a list. Be honest. What will you lose? If you haven’t resolved what will be lost, you are probably not ready to act.

The final stage in the change sequence is Maintenance. Just stopping the unwanted behavior is often not enough to overcome it for good. It can be argued that all negative actions in our lives serve some purpose. To overcome them fully, we must replace them with new healthier ones, like the couple above who is learning new communication skills. The point here is to realize that relapse is possible, and to set up systems in advance to help yourself make it through the troubled times. It is easy to reach for a drink, or yell at the family, but if an alternative behavior has been put in place, such as jogging or journaling, it can help keep the impulse at bay.

For a change, let me leave you with an old joke instead of a quote.

How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

Good luck.