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Breaking Down the 5 Stages of Change

The desire for a change is the common denominator which all my clients share.  Whether it’s change relating to habits, lifestyle, mood or relationships, creating change is usually challenging.  More than 20 years ago, researchers broke down how change occurs and shared the model consisting of 5 stages.  Understanding those stages can assist you in making changes today.  Knowing the steps, where you are in the process, how far you have to go and what more needs to be done serves as a type of map from which you can chart yourself.  I hope this blog post will aid you in making the changes you want in life.

The 5 Stages of Change


“NO!!!”  This is the word that summarizes the stage of precontemplation.  This is before someone is even considering making any changes and no problem with any behaviors or situation is recognized.  Precontamplation is often accompanied by the “Four R’s” of reluctance, rebellion, resignation and rationalization.  The Four R’s can be associated with any behavior or situation in life that is not seen as harmful to health, self or relationships.  In this stage, change is not even considered.  People may be reluctant to deal with the issue causing them trouble because it’s daunting, scary, or a bit overwhelming.  They have not yet fully realized how they are being harmed by behavior or their situation.  Someone may rebel Fotolia_44896917_XSby thinking they have “all the answers” and often get angry at people who bring to their attention the problem or situation.  Resignation is when someone feels a victim to their circumstances.  They feel hopeless and the thought of change feels futile so they no longer consider it.  Rationalization is when someone has tried to convince themselves logically and rationally that what they do or the circumstance in which they are living is not a problem.


During contemplation, a person is “on the fence”.  They recognize behaviors or patterns that are unhealthy or harmful, and are often interested in hearing about solutions.  They want information and go back and forth about whether it’s worth it to attempt change and are still largely ambivalent and are not committed to change.  Failed attempts to change from the past may be factored in as well when weighing the pros and cons while contemplating change.  This is a big fork in the road.


This is the stage where ambivalence may be present but is no longer winning.  People in this stage have resolved to make a change and are ready to take steps and action.  Preparation is extremely important in this stage because without a solid plan, attempts often produce foiled results.  Having a good plan in place and a support system that will encourage you and hold you accountable is paramount to success.  So, take the time when you become determined to properly prepare yourself for stepping into action.  This is when many people seek out counseling as and aid to help them devise a good plan, assess their resources and support system, highlight and discover things which may pose as obstacles and have an added source of accountability.


Ready, Set, Go!!  This is the place where you start walking the talk.  And, it’s hard.  It’s uncomfortable.  You might want to “go back”.  Try and remember, change is almost always uncomfortable because it’s new and unfamiliar.  Former ways of behaving may be unhealthy or harmful, but chances are they are “painfully familiar and comfortable” at the same time.  You know the old pain.  The new discomfort associated with change is foreign and unsettling most likely.  Don’t give in.  Your thoughts may try and “bargain” with you about why it’s okay to give up and return to status quo.  This is where you use your resources set out in your plan from the previous stage to get you through this difficult period.  Use your support system, don’t isolate, stay busy, keep moving and surround yourself by those who will acknowledge your attempts.  Just keep walking… even if others have to hold you up from time to time!


Maintenance will occur after the new behavior feels comfortable and is integrated into a person’s life.  People may have “slips” before the maintenance stage.  For many, this  leads to self criticism, hopelessness and judgement.  Attempts to change are then abandoned returning people to the precontemplation stage.  Most people go through the loop of precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and then relapse many times before maintenance is achieved.  This is precisely why a good plan is needed and a strong support system.  Remember, whatever you’re trying to change in your life, “relapse is often part of change”.  Don’t give up on yourself.  If you’ve relapsed more than once, are you trying the same plan over and over?  If so, you need to add something new to your plan or remove something.  Switch it up.  Don’t’ keep trying the same thing when you don’t get the result you’re wanting.  With a reinforced plan, you have a better chance at success.

Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley.  For more information about San Diego Counseling, feel free to call or email her.
Office hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 to 6:00.

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I offer individual counseling, couples therapy and premarital counseling. The issues I work with are diverse and range from problems arising from sudden circumstantial changes to long standing and complex struggles. My approach to counseling is varied since individual needs and circumstances inform the methods I use. I don’t approach any two people the same and personalize my methods for each situation and client. Click the button below to book a session and we can begin your journey to rediscovery.


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