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We are two months into the new year; how are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? Maybe you don’t make resolutions, or maybe you make resolutions and find yourself giving up after feeling like you’ve failed. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, many of us share a common desire to make positive changes in our lives. The need for change is amplified by society with the new year; but the truth is, we can begin to make changes at any time. When we make these big resolutions in January, we tend to put a fair amount of pressure on ourselves to change overnight, and when change doesn’t happen, we often throw in the towel.

According to U.S. News & World Report, 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. The reason for this varies from person to person. What I want to address is how we change, specifically how the field of psychology understands stages of change as well as how we can do it in a way that promotes both self-compassion and lasting change.

So, what are the stages of change? The Transtheoretical Model (TTM) was developed by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in the late 1970s. According to The American Family Physician, these Prochaska & DiClemente used factor and cluster analytic methods in retrospective, prospective, and cross-sectional studies specifically exploring the ways people approach the task of quitting smoking. The model has been validated and applied to a variety of behaviors, include exercise behavior, contraceptive use, dietary behavior, and weight loss. TTM operates on the premise that people do not change their behaviors quickly and decisively, but rather continuously through a cyclical process, through the ongoing development of habitual healthy behaviors. According to a 2019 article by Dr. Wayne LaMorte, “TTM focuses on the decision-making of the individual and is a model of intentional change.”

Here are the TTM stages of change:

  1. Precontemplation – Individuals are unaware that their behavior is a problem, nor are they aware of the negative consequences resulting from the behavior. The individual’s focus is upon the cons of changing their behavior rather than the pros of behavior change. Something must change in the individual’s perception in order to move into the next stage.
  2. Contemplation – Individuals begin to recognize their behavior might be problematic. Their pros and cons of changing behavior are more balanced. Even with this awareness, many individuals remain ambivalent about changing their behavior.
  3. Preparation/Determination – Individuals are ready to take action. They have the belief that taking small steps to change their behavior will lead to a healthier life. Individuals in this stage will begin to gather information about what they will need to do to change their behavior.
  4. Action – Individuals begin to engage in behavior change and are intent to keep moving forward. This can be the modification of a certain behavior or the beginning of new healthy behaviors.
  5. Maintenance – Individuals have maintained their behavior change (more than 6 months) and are intent to keep moving forward. Individuals work to prevent relapsing into earlier stages and maintain their new status quo.

It is important to note, the original model included the termination stage. Individuals in this stage have no desire to return to the previously changed behavior and are sure they will not relapse. This stage is rarely reached, according to LaMorte; individuals tend to stay in the maintenance stage. Also, keep in mind, it is normal to regress, sometimes moving forward to one stage and then falling back to a previous stage. Relapse is often a part of the process of making, and eventually sustaining, a lifelong change.

Now that we know the stages of change, how do we put them into practice? Kendra Cherry suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • If you are in the Precontemplation stage, ask yourself: What would have to happen for you to consider your behavior is a problem? How do you recognize that you have a problem? Have you ever tried to change this behavior in the past?
  • If you are in the Contemplating stage, ask yourself: Why do you want to change? Is there anything preventing you from changing? Is there anything that could help you make this change?
  • If you are in the Preparation/Determination stage: Gather as much information as you can about changing this behavior. Write down your goals, find resources (counselors, support groups or friends) that can offer encouragement and advice.
  • If you are in the Action stage: Reflect on your recent changes and ensure you have not overlooked one of the previous stages. Remember to congratulate and reward yourself for maintaining positive steps toward change.
  • If you are in the Maintenance stage: identify your triggers and look for ways to avoid these situations and/or barriers. Congratulate yourself when you avoid a relapse. On the flip side, if you do relapse, remind yourself it was a minor setback and not worth giving up.
  • If you are in a Relapse: look at why it happened and what you can do to avoid these triggers in the future? Relapses are a common occurrence when making change.

Also helpful when you are seeking change is understanding the three elements involved in changing a behavior. Cherry defines these as:

  1. Readiness to change: Do you have the resources and knowledge to make a lasting change successfully?
  2. Barriers to change: Is there anything preventing you from changing?
  3. Expect a relapse: What might trigger a return to a former behavior?

Change is hard even with the best of intentions and in the best of environments. Many of my clients come into therapy with a desire to change a certain behavior or habit and I have found it is important that they strive to silence their inner critic. I often hear statements like, “I’m just so weak,” “I’m so stupid,” I can’t believe I let this happen to me again; what’s wrong with me?” and “No wonder I am single, unemployed, _________, and _________ (fill in the blank). I can’t even get my life together.”

When one’s inner critic becomes excessively negative, it will often do more harm than good. I appreciate Elizabeth Scott, MS, and her approach to thinking about the Toxic Effects of Negative Self-Talk. She says:

The musings of your negative self-talk, or ‘inner critic,’ may sound a lot like a critical parent or friend from your past. It can follow the path of typical cognitive distortions: catastrophizing, blaming, and the like. Basically, negative self-talk is any inner dialogue you have with yourself that may be limiting your ability to believe in yourself and your ability to reach your potential. It is any thought that diminishes you and your ability to make positive changes in your life, or hinders your confidence in your ability to do so. Because of this, negative self-talk cannot only be stressful, but it can really stunt your success.

In order to deal with our negative inner critic, we must begin to challenge our thoughts—not every thought (and feeling for that matter) is rational and our thoughts are often biased by our environment or mood. We must practice self-compassion when working towards behavior changes. For more information, please read my previous blog post on self-compassion and mindfulness. Remind yourself, you are not your mistakes and you can start your day over at any time.

So, back to those New Year’s resolutions. What stage of change are you in? What can you do to encourage yourself or a loved one who is working toward changing a particular behavior?

Alison Curtis, MS, Resident in Counseling, provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Alison!