New Years is a comin’ around the corner, and if you are like millions of other American’s, you’ll come up with one or more New Year’s resolutions, and then a few months later, you’ll find yourself consumed with other responsibilities. Sigh. Why is change so hard? Is there anyway to increase our likelihood of success? Yes! But we can’t expect it to be easy.
Deciding to change requires a cost benefit analysis. Many of our vices, whether they be overeating, smoking, gambling, shopping, or watching too much TV, have benefited us in the short term in some way. We may either find some pleasure in our habits, or they may serve to ease our anxiety about our present moment or situation. They may sooth us due to their familiarity, and may feel hopelessly ingrained. We may have received plenty of advice on how to change, and the steps look easy enough, so why haven’t we been able to implement them? Our doctors/therapists/mothers/experts have told us why we need to drop those pesky habits and/or embrace healthy ones. We’ve been told how it will affect our health, and we know that we aren’t doing ourselves any good by continuing with the status quo. So what is holding us back?
According to Hal. Arkowitz and Scott. O. Lilienfeld in the article “Why don’t people change?” in a 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind, there are four major forces that block change. 1.) The status quo feels like home. Its comfortable and familiar. Change is scary and unpredictable. 2.) People are concerned if they fail, they’ll just feel worse. 3.) Faulty beliefs. For example people might consider themselves a failure unless they’ve completely eliminated the problem. Or recommendations to change by family or authoritative figures are taken as an imposition against personal freedom, and thus we rebel. 4.) Our habits may be our best solution for dealing with distress or anxiety.
So with all these mental blocks to changing our habits, its no wonder that many of the tips we are given (ie. portion control, cutting up credit cards, etc), don’t do us much good unless we are ready and committed to change.
In the 1980’s Prochaska and Diclemente developed the Transtheoretical Model of Change, which is also called the Stages of Change model. It is used by therapists and researchers to describe what stage of change we are in. They are: 1.) the precontemplative phase: where we really aren’t interested in changing. 2.) the contemplative phase: a person may recognize at times that the behavior needs to be changed, but they aren’t ready to make the commitment to change. 3.) the preparation phase: a person may have decided to change, perhaps they’ve set a date or made small changes, but they are still not completely committed. 4.) the action phase: the person has made the commitment to change and has achieved abstinence from 1 day to 6 months. 5.) the maintenance phase: a person has changed behavior for 6 months, and is trying to prevent a relapse. Many therapeutic programs assume you are in the action phase and ready to change. But there is now plenty of research showing with a large number of addictive behaviors that if the therapy you receive doesn’t match your stage of change, that your chances of success are substantially lower. And what stage are most of us in? This probably depends on what behavior we are talking about, but its likely that most of us are in the contemplative phase with the more addictive behaviors.
Say there are 2 people who are trying to quit smoking and they’ve been abstinent for 1 or more weeks. But one of them came to the decision quickly because their friend’s father was just diagnosed with lung cancer. The other spent a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of being a non-smoker, gathered information about what it would take, and mentally prepared for any negative consequences of change (like loss of peers for example). Technically speaking, as per Janis & Mann (1977), the first person used a hypervigilant decision making process, was scared into quitting, and was motivated by a high degree of anxiety. The second used a vigilant decision making process, where she approached the decision more calmly and carefully. Research shows that people who’ve used vigilant decision making to reach the action phase are more likely to succeed. And the person who was scared into quitting has a higher chance of falling back into the contemplative phase.
So lets review. In order to successfully quit smoking, gambling, shopping, etc., we need to be in a therapeutic program that matches our stage of change. We are also more likely to succeed if we are well informed about the process, if we have thought carefully about the consequences of change, and if we prepared to address them.
So for those of us who aren’t ready to embrace change or who are good at talking ourselves out of it, there is a form of therapy called motivational interviewing that is worth a try. Motivational Interviewing is based on the concept of “I learn what I believe as I hear myself talk” (Miller, 1995, Miller & Rollnick, 1991). By asking the right questions, a therapist works to help you find your own reasons to change, and helps you think positively about the idea. The therapist needs to never be construed as being pushy or we are more likely to resist. He or she must be compassionate, and most importantly be very patient. It takes awhile to reprogram our thinking, and as we embrace action for change, we may encounter difficulties that bring us back to our original mindset. The therapist needs to help us prepare for what might happen and make sure that we are ready to handle it. And the therapist must help use set challenging and yet reasonable goals throughout the process. Thus motivational interviewing can help us use a vigilant decision making process to decide to change.
Now that we have a better understanding of what’s involved in getting rid of those vices, let’s start with some changes in how we approach our New Years resolutions. For those tough habits, success requires a lot of support. Ideally, we need a cognitive behavioral therapist who will access our readiness to change and determine what stage we are in, and who practices “motivational interviewing” as a part of their treatment. If you don’t have access to a therapist, you can start with the “Readiness the change ruler” by G.L. Zimmerman, C.G. Olsen and M.F. Bostworth in an article entitled “A ‘Stages of Change’ approach to helping patients change behavior”. It helps you determine what stage you are in, and gives you appropriate questions that match each stage of change. Its goal is to give you incentives to keep moving you forward through the process.
Changing those pesky persistent behaviors is no easy ride. It takes a considerable amount of energy to be disciplined, so the better we can relax and nurture ourselves the easier it will be to succeed. So we might consider adding yoga classes or other healthy ways of relaxing to our list of New Years Resolutions. People who succeed in major behavior change often have a great social network of support. So join group therapy, a 12 step program, or set goals with friends and family. And try to stay positive. The mantra “Yes we can” can be changed to “Yes, I can!” Embrace it folks! It could be your ticket to personal change!
Arkowitz, H., Lilienfeld, S.O. Why don’t people change?. Scientific American Mind. June/July 2007: 82-83.
Janis L., Mann L. (1977). Decision making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice and commitment. New York: Free Press.
Miller, W., (1995) Increasing motivation to change. In R. Heaster & W. Miller (Eds.) Handbook of alcoholism treatment approaches: Effective alternatives (2nd ed., 89-104). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Miller, W., Rollnick, S., (1991) Motivational interviewing: Preparing people to change addictive behavior. New York: Guilford.
Prochaska, J. DiClemente, C., Norcross J. (1992) In search of how people change: Application to addictive behaviors. American Psychologist; 47: 1102-1114.
Ryder, D., Deciding to Change: Enhancing Client Motivation to Change Behavior. Behavior Change. Vol 16 (3): 165-174.
Zimmerman, G.L., Olsen C.G., and Bostworth, M.F., A ‘Stages of Change’ approach to helping patients change behavior. American Family Physician 61(5):15; March 1 2000