Stop Complaining and Make a Plan: What Stage of Change Are You In?

Life’s hard.

For many of us, this is just a given. For others, it is something they resist accepting at all costs. And it shows in the outcomes in their lives. They settle, they live in denial, they refuse to accept accountability. All very human reactions. But such reactions will be detrimental to the quality of one’s life.

Let’s be honest. Often, life can feel like we’re scrambling to escape an avalanche of responsibilities and an endless to-do lists of tasks after task. And when we are feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to find fault or point out what’s wrong, but if we get in the habit of complaining, it starts to create a momentum of its own, paralyzing us from moving forward. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t fall into this trap from time to time.

Many people are deeply unhappy in their lives but experience a tremendous amount of inertia. Some of that inertia is justified in that sometimes our environments won’t support an immediate drastic change. For example, maybe you hate your job, but quitting right now without a backup plan might not be financially feasible when you have a mortgage and kids to support.

The problem though is that justified short-term inertia easily turns into unjustified long-term inertia due to the false bias that an important change requires action right away. Part of this is rationalization for many of us. We might not love our current circumstances but conditions are familiar and predictable, which keeps our anxiety at bay. So we tell ourselves that there’s nothing we can do to change our situations for the better right now and that’s that. This might be true when what we’re talking about is action right now.

But actually all meaningful change, where entrenched patterns of behavior must be altered or new patterns of behavior must be implemented, must pass through the various stages of change before reaching that end point called maintenance where new behaviors are enacted more or less effortlessly and where those behaviors and the environment exist in a stable feedback loop. 

The stages of change are: pre-contemplation, contemplation, planning, action, and maintenance

Five stages of change have been conceptualized for a variety of problem behaviors. The five stages of change are precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.

Precontemplation is the stage at which there is no real intent to change behavior in the foreseeable future. Many individuals in this stage are unaware or under aware of their problems.

Contemplation is the stage in which people are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about overcoming it but have not yet made a commitment to take action. At this stage in the game, change consist of wishes and fantasies.

Preparation is a stage that combines intention and behavioral criteria. Individuals in this stage are intending to take action in the next month and have unsuccessfully taken action in the past year. This is where we are researching how to achieve our goals, figuring out the steps necessary.

Action is the stage in which individuals modify their behavior, experiences, or environment in order to overcome their problems. Action involves the most overt behavioral changes and requires considerable commitment of time and energy. This stage is hard as it requires intentional behavioral change in one’s day to day life. It forces us to kick off auto pilot.

Maintenance is the stage in which people work to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action. For addictive behaviors this stage extends from six months to an indeterminate period past the initial action. This stage determines if the change will be lasting or if we will slip back into old behaviors.

So, our point here is that if you’re unhappy with one or several aspects of your life then it means you’re past pre-contemplation and into the contemplation phase. You’re not at the action phase yet, and it actually doesn’t make sense to take action right now. You’re missing a major step in between. But instead you sink into apathetic acceptance where you tell yourself since you can’t take action you can’t change your situation and therefore undesirable circumstances continue on indefinitely, causing more apathy and inertia.

Counseling can help you kick yourself into the action phase of change. It can help peel back the layers of what is keeping you stuck. People come to counseling in different places of readiness, sometimes entering unsure, only contemplating change. Other times, people are already mid-way through the Action stage when they decide they need some extra help. Regardless, your counselor will tailor therapy for you based on your stage of change.

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