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.

The Common Denominator is YOU

As a counselor, my goal for all my clients is hopefully by the end of our time together, for them to report feeling more at peace with themselves and the world around them. If treatment goals are met, they will know themselves a bit better and have a greater understanding of their inner psychology. An important part of personal development is learning why we do the things we do; this way, we can understand what got us to this point and what we need to do differently going forward to generate better results.

To get to that end goal, we go through a process where we explore a client’s inner and outer world. We discuss their relationships and other external factors that impact their emotional well-being, yet we also explore their inner world i.e. their self-talk.

An important part of the counseling process is taking ownership of your treatment and more so, of your life as a whole. I cannot reach my clients’ goals for them. It is important they recognize the clinician is the facilitator; they are the ones responsible for their progress and growth. One of the most common mechanisms by which we seek to protect our fragile sense of self is the projection of responsibility, where we place most of the blame for unwanted relationship outcomes squarely on the shoulders of those around us. Except for bouts of major depression, where feelings of worthlessness and excessive guilt might cause us to take on more than our fair share of the responsibility for conflict and dysfunction, we tend to see ourselves as the heroes, the saints, the victims, the innocent bystanders in our life stories. It’s those around us who are the villains, the sinners, the perpetrators, the guilty parties. Very rare does someone view themselves as in the wrong. This is just a part of human nature.

While blaming everything and everyone else for the quality of our relationships might insulate us from undue emotional distress we pay a heavy price because we can only ever influence those aspects of our lives over which we take some modicum of responsibility. Responsibility is the ability to respond. When all that responsibility is placed in the external environment we unwittingly turn ourselves into victims in our own lives. We stop self-reflection in its tracks, we see no reason to change our perceptions, to change our behaviors, to change ourselves. We keep on going in the same way, we keep on getting the same results, and we keep on blaming everybody else for it. (Except in this case of abusive relationships, the old adage that it takes two to tango generally holds true in most relationship conflicts).

In the therapeutic alliance one of the most effective ways to gain some ground and start to make some inroads against the seemingly impermeable barrier of refusing to accept personal responsibility for one’s role in the conflict that exists in their lives, is to gently point out that often we tend to characterize the behaviors of other people in our life in basically the same way. There tends to be a recurring theme in how we describe conflicts in our life with ourselves not being at fault. We might find themes of pettiness, betrayal, envy, anger, abandonment, destructiveness, small-mindedness, or anything else. Regardless of the theme, the powerful insight to present is “The common denominator is you.” You are the person who ALL these different people have in common. Over time this idea, that what all of those similar behaviors of others have in common is the client, usually leads to the dawning realization that there must be something emanating not from out there in the external world but from within. Like attracts like. To a certain extent, we may be drawing to us these unwanted outcomes through our own behavior. A tough pill to swallow, indeed.

Blaming other people is an easy out, and an easy way for us to continue our behaviors, which may be the source of the problem we’re hoping to put on someone else. This denial of responsibility also denies us control of a given situation. If you don’t hold yourself accountable for the consequences of your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, you get to continue living life thinking that you don’t have any flaws or areas needing improvement.

Carl Jung put it succinctly when he wrote “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” But this understanding can only begin if we become aware of our proclivity to project that which we can’t or won’t accept inside of us. Then we can summon up the courage to start wondering how it is that we tend to pull out the same constellation of behaviors in different people and what we can start doing differently to get more desirable results. It is not easy to accept that we are to blame, but it is empowering to do so. It takes courage and the ability to be vulnerable. But vulnerability is the gateway, the entry point to change, growth, and greater connection–both with ourselves and others.

4 DBT Skills ANYONE Can Use!

Though DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) is known predominantly as a treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD), its foundation is pretty simple. The concept of dialectics is used to simultaneously foster change and acceptance.  This allows sufferers to accept the present while acknowledging that their future must involve change.  

DBT is an empirically based treatment, meaning it is backed by evidence. It is broken down into two major components: skills training and individual therapy.

Skills offer specific solutions to pretty common problems. Though created specifically for those with BPD, it addresses common issues. This means it can actually be used by anyone. DBT teaches clients emotional regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness, and interpersonal effectiveness-skills we can all benefit from. Here are four DBT skills that can help individuals cope with anxiety or stress.


One-mindfully is a skill that suggests that fully engaging in the moment can be a deceptively therapeutic exercise. Often people are living their present lives ruminating about the past or future. This can easily provoke anxiety as we get stuck mulling over what we’ve already done wrong, or what we’re certain to do wrong.

I always try to help clients develop the ability to anchor themselves in the present because that is key to maintaining good mental health. It is all too easy to allow your mind to be hijacked by the past and the future. With this skill, we become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. We learn to pause and check in before responding. This helps to limit people from reacting which tends to be driven by raw emotion as opposed to responding which is when we are calm and with a set intention.

The idea of cultivating this skill is that this better prepares us to handle future problems. This way we are taking charge of our emotions instead of allowing them to rule us.

The truth is that fully engaging in the present allows us to be better capable of dealing with future challenges as they arise. This can be a foreign concept in cultures, industries, and countries that operate under a “work till you keel over” attitude. Self-care and maintenance are an oft-overlooked, extremely important facet of productivity.

It also helps keep anxiety at bay, by fostering less rumination about the past while allowing us to effectively deal with future problems from a more mentally grounded perspective. It helps avoid burnout and its predecessor: over-extension.


In DBT, the concept of self-soothing refers to our ability to calm emotional turmoil by grounding ourselves by focusing on physical stimuli. This is done by using any number of the five senses: taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch.

This means there are seemingly endless ways to utilize this skill, dependent upon whatever is the most effective for the individual. It can help anxiety sufferers “get out of” their mind, in order to become grounded in the physical world again.

For example, one could suck on hard candy and analyze the feel and taste. They can also escape through a favorite song or the soft, soothing feel of an animal’s fur.

Because the exercise momentarily replaces rumination and worry, it can be particularly useful for sufferers of anxiety. Taking a break from the rumination can then be utilized to think in a more detached and calm manner. This would hopefully allow the individual to think of more effective ways of addressing whatever is provoking their anxiety, or at give them a momentary vacation from it.  

Luckily this skill both helps heed off anticipatory anxiety and deal with the aftermath of an emotionally triggering event.

Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance can require more effort and is one of the more difficult DBT skills to master. It involves accepting the world exactly as it is, at that moment. Sounds pretty easy right? But what if you’re accepting the death of a loved one, end of a relationship, financial mistake, embarrassing gaffe or catastrophic mistake?

The idea of radical acceptance is not to turn away from these painful experiences but to accept that they’re in fact real and true. Mental effort should, therefore, go into either coming to peace with the experience or changing it. It is embodied in one of my favorite coping mantras, it is what it is.

This can be life-altering for anxiety sufferers who tend to focus on the why and how of the experience, mulling over the disbelief of the circumstances as opposed to how they are going to either accept or extricate themselves from the situation. Often clients come to counseling intently focused on figuring out the WHY. I often state gently it doesn’t matter–not to be dismissive but because the fact is a lot of things in life are inherently meaningless. People act without thinking, life events unfold due to happenstance. Too often clients try to prescribe intent to actions where there is none. A lot of anxiety is grounded in the idea that a better understanding of the situation will somehow make the situation different. This is often only subtly false.

This is because rumination can be seen as a pre-emptive deterrent to being caught unaware of a problem or issue. It can be practiced to pathologically damaging levels, however.  This can leave individuals expending truly immense amounts of effort, noticing their situations never seem to actually change.

Non-judgmental Stance

This skill is about cultivating a non-judgmental perspective where things are neither good or bad. Everything and everyone are simply is as it is. The truth is judging is often a short hand way of stating our preference. It is in our nature to label and judge. And maintaining a non-judgmental stance in the face of stress and anxiety is very difficult, but in doing so will help us to regulate our emotions. Common judgmental words include: right, wrong, good, bad, should, must, unfair, stupid, crazy, awesome, great, terrible, etc.

The fact remains judgments do more harm than good. Passing judgments about people, things, or ourselves shuts those things out of our world and closes the doors to opportunities, growth, and relationships. Staying in a non-judgmental state of mind keeps us open to possibilities and options.

These are four DBT skills that can be life changing for those that commit to them. However, like all therapies, DBT shouldn’t be considered a one-size fix for any problem or individual. Counseling can help you cultivate these skills to be more at peace with yourself and the world around you.

Your Past is Only Relevant to How It Impacts Your Present Life

All too often some counselors and their clients fall into a trap many people fall into in the wider sphere of life is that they tend to focus on the past at the expense of the here and now. Thinking about the past can be useful but only as it relates to present functioning. Otherwise, it’s like walking through the ruins of an ancient civilization or digging up archeological relics; sure, it’s interesting but there’s no life, no vitality, no vibrancy.

Most of us know that having had a hard childhood can affect our adult lives. Depending on the severity of childhood hardship, and the amount of counseling, who you are as an adult can be based on what you knew as a child. In fact, an Adverse Childhood Experiences scale is a popular tool clinicians use to assess childhood adversity. Such experiences can interfere with a person’s health, opportunities and stability throughout his or her lifetime—and can even affect future generations.

We all know people who act a certain way because of the unhappiness of their formative years. The child who had to deal with an alcoholic parent, one who suffered abuse at the hands of family members, witnessed their parents’ hostile divorce, children who were exposed to the horrifying aspects of poverty — anyone who has had what is commonly referred to as “dysfunctional family dynamics.”

There are a few psychological reasons that people focus all their attention on the past. The biggest one is that for many, their past is their present. What I mean is that they haven’t been able to find a resolution, a sense of closure about what happened to them, and as such these past events are still very much alive. The problem of course is that they can no longer do anything to influence this past, they can’t channel their psychic energy where it needs to go, so it sticks around regardless of how many times they play out what happened in their heads.

For others talking about the past is a good way to escape the present. The past feels safer, precisely because it’s set in stone and carries no uncertainty with it, no risk. By focusing on the past they can keep things at the theoretical level instead of the more dangerous visceral level that fully committing to the here and now entails.

As you get older and you gain more life experience, the way you perceive your past changes. As you mature, you begin to recognize the life lessons that you’ve learned through your past experiences, and this can influence the way you look back at your past.

I think there is something to be gain from exploring the past with a client. It is helpful to understand a client’s life history to conceptualize their present functioning. Part of an intake session is going over a client’s life story as well as their presenting problem ie what is bringing them to counseling. I don’t think it’s automatically a waste of time to work on your past in therapy. I’m not saying counseling should exclusively be about your present circumstances, and anything focused on the past is misguided. It’s not that black or white. I just want to push back against the idea that counseling is about focusing on the past or blaming one’s parents for their current life problems, a common generalization I hear from critics of talk therapy.

As a clinician myself, I always utilize Gestalt therapy with my clients as part of my tool bag of techniques. Gestalt therapy is a client-centered approach to counseling which helps clients focus on the present and understand what is really happening in their lives right now, rather than what they may perceive to be happening based on past experience.

Thinking about the past is only really useful when it gives you vital clues about present functioning, about the way you relate to yourself, others, and the world. The only thing that is real is the present moment; it’s the place where you spend the entirety of your life, even when you’re projecting yourself backwards or forwards in time. The key is to better understanding how your current patterns of behavior are connected to what happened to you so that you can take the next vital step of changing these behaviors.

Radical Acceptance

A key component of radical acceptance is not fighting reality. It is the cornerstone of DBT (Dialectic Behavior Therapy). Radical acceptance can be defined as the ability to accept situations that are outside of your control without judging them, which in turn reduces the suffering that causes them.

Radical acceptance is a distress tolerance skill that is designed to keep pain from turning into suffering.

It’s easy to confuse the idea of radical acceptance with unhealthy states of being like giving up, complacency, or settling for less. The typical argument runs something like, “Acceptance is for losers. I refuse to accept my lot. I’m going to keep striving until I get to a better place.”

But radical acceptance places no restraints on wanting a different future, no restraints on motivated behavior meant to change the present set of circumstances. In fact we could make the existential argument that acceptance is the necessary prerequisite for any future change. As Carl Rogers once put it, “When I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”

In our view the heart of radical acceptance has two fundamental parts. The first is seeing the present clearly for what it is and the second is realizing that despite the various unwanted elements of this present situation there also exist all the necessary elements for happiness and fulfillment right now.

Radical acceptance is accepting the facts of a situation without responding by throwing a tantrum or putting our head in the sand. It embodies my favorite mantra, it is what it is.

Mind you, radical acceptance is not approval or agreeing with what happen, but rather completely and totally accepting the current facts, EVEN IF WE DO NOT LIKE THEM. By choosing to accept things out of our control, we prevent ourselves from becoming stuck in unhappiness, bitterness, sadness, and in a perpetual state of suffering. Completely totally and accepting this fact is challenging, but liberating. It frees up all the the energy we are using to fight reality to effectively cope with the situation and take care of ourselves.

Radical acceptance takes lots of practice and counseling can help you develop the skills to cope with distress. It is a difficult skill but a skill that can transform your life.