Can People Change?

 When they want to, have a plan to, and a discipline to stick to it

By Jessica Militello

We try to implement new habits and hobbies, or see a motivational quote that inspires us only temporarily, or we see statements about others, suggesting what they didn’t do for you, they easily will do for the next person, or if they took you seriously enough, they would have changed, and if they didn’t change for you and they did with someone else it’s because of how they felt about you. With such one-dimensional quotes out there about our relationships and overly simplified advice on change it’s no wonder we judge ourselves for not being able to improve overnight, or why we think others can just magically change for us based on our own expectations and projections.

Well first of all, people treat you how they feel about themselves, not how they feel about you. And secondly you are not magical- not to change yourself quickly and simply, or for your worth or perceived lack of it to make someone go through the five steps of change all the way to the maintenance phase and continue it.

Wait- five steps? Don’t people just easily and magically transform for a job or a person like these stupid quotes say? Well who am I to tell anyone what to believe, but the next time you wonder why you can’t simply change your thoughts and habits almost overnight, or if your worth can magically transform someone else’s, let’s go over the five steps to change to even see what it takes for change to occur.

  1. Precontemplation- Before you even begin trying to change something you need to have some kind of thoughts that recognize that your behaviors are somehow not conducive to your best self. Let’s start with something simple- Every time you go out with your friends on a Friday night for dinner, you end up ordering drinks, staying out until 3 in the morning, and you realize that every time you do this, the next day when you wake up for work, you feel tired, hung over, sick, moody, and it feels like the longest day ever. That is as far as precontemplation goes. And the next week despite knowing all this, you do it again anyway because you’ve only got as far as pondering that perhaps this isn’t working for you, but you aren’t ready to change. Notice this all has to do with you, how you feel, what you think, what choices that you are making, and what’s comfortable and familiar. Okay-great, now for the next step.

2. Contemplation- This step involves considering different options or ways to go about what you were in precontemplation over. These phases do not necessarily go on any kind of trajectory either. You can be in precontemplation over something for years and never go further. But staying with our Friday night example, you may recognize you are not 21 years old anymore, your hangovers take a bit longer to recover from, you look and feel like complete shit the next day, and you realize that this kind of living is not working for you. In this step, you may consider having this kind of outing on a Saturday night instead since you are off from work on Sundays. You may consider drinking less or going home earlier, or perhaps not doing something like this every single weekend, but again you still have not acted upon it, these are all just thoughts that are beginning to swirl around in your mind.

3. Preparation- Okay so Saturday morning you woke up late, hung over, got to work late, fell asleep at your desk, and your boss caught you and you got in a lot of trouble. Your bad habits are affecting more than your beauty sleep; now it’s affecting your work. Something that affects you in a serious way, like getting in trouble at work for example, may make you take your ideas to change a bit more seriously. It could also be an experience that you add to the contemplation box and still do absolutely nothing about because you are just not ready to change your habits. You’ve met up with these friends every Friday for the past 10 years and for whatever reason you just aren’t in a place to make changes. Sometimes what is comfortable and what you’re used to takes precedent over making a change even if you know that the change is for the better. But, for the sake of explaining preparation-you getting in trouble was finally your wake up call, so you decide that next Friday you are definitely going to only have two drinks and go home by midnight.

4. Action- It’s time to follow through on your plan. You told all your friends and yourself the new rules- two drinks max and home by midnight. Your friends say okay, but they give you a hard time about it. But for the first two Fridays you totally stuck with the plan. You woke up on Saturday morning feeling way better and you’re super proud of yourself. But you’re in a group chat and your friends are talking about stories and sharing jokes about things that happened after you left! You feel a little left out and annoyed that your “new rules” are ruining your fun. Well- next Friday you aren’t going to miss out again, plus you’ll just make sure not to put your alarm clock on snooze, so you at least get to work on time. You stay out late, you still hit snooze the next morning, and you still show up to work super late and hung over. So much for step 4- you know this change is good for you but you’re not liking the results so far- back into step 2 of change. See how easy it is to go back on the steps? Imagine something harder like beliefs you were taught your whole life about love, relationships, eating habits, or maintaining a healthy weight. These steps, similar to grieving are not at all linear and can start, stop, restart, and stop again depending on the difficulty of the change and how long you’ve been maintaining the kinds of life or mindset that you are trying to reform.

5. Maintenance- As it would appear from my example, you went through with all the steps, but you were not yet in a place to maintain it. A big part of maintenance is recognizing that what’s best for you is not usually going to have the instant gratification or reward we are generally seeking for making a change. In the Friday night example, you knew what you were doing was not conducive to how you felt and it affected your life, but you had a hard time breaking a habit, and doing what was best for your situation by maintaining the changes, and accepting that missing out on some fun was a bit of a sacrifice for your job, health and happiness. Some models of the steps of change actually consider it a six-part process including relapse because it is completely normal to struggle with maintaining a change.

I wanted to keep my example simple by using the Friday night story, but you can take it and change it to anything. These five steps are not so simple, not only for how others choose to or fail to show up for us, but also for us to have compassion for ourselves for when we struggle with changes we want to make and stagger forward and backward at times. What I like about knowing these five steps is it helps me to be mindful not only with myself, but with others. If changes are this hard to make when we recognize there’s a problem, it would be impossible for someone who has not even started the precontemplation step. On the other side of it, while it’s nice to have empathy for someone else’s struggles to do better as a person, we also need to recognize when their inability to address their own habits and behaviors becomes a detriment to our own well-being. So the next time you are struggling, have compassion for yourself and others, but also recognize if someone is unable to change. People don’t just change when they want to change. Not for a job, a relationship, or anything else. We change when we want to, are ready to, have a plan to, and a dedication and discipline to stick to said plan- save this as a note to self and anyone else too.

8 thoughts on “Can People Change?

    1. Hey Michele-yes I totally agree! I think what people struggle with the most is how hard it can sometimes be to change, especially when it comes to behaviors and patterns of thinking that we’ve been carrying around for years. I really wanted to break down what it takes for change to occur and be maintained so that people can realize if they are struggling, it’s totally normal and part of the process. Thank you for your insight !

      Liked by 1 person

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