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The Process of Change

Sally left the doctors office feeling angry, overwhelmed and scared. She knew her weight had been higher than she wanted it to be for quite some time. She didn’t realize it was actually affecting her overall health. She was now sixty pounds overweight with high cholesterol and blood pressure. With the shocking news now weighing on her, she knew she had to make some changes, but how? 

On a daily basis human beings experience new things that cause us to think, act, and sometimes feel differently. Often, however, these experiences are small enough that they don’t cause us to stop and really think about how they change us. On the other hand, when things happen in our lives that are significant, or cause a high level of discomfort, we are often forced to stop and think about how we want to move forward.

There are common threads that we all share when going through a pivotal moment in our lives. For most of us, change is not always easy. Many times we resist it. However, if we are going through a big change in our lives, one of the most important things we can do is be patient and kind to ourselves. It takes a lot to change the way we are in the world, and showing compassion towards ourselves makes the journey easier.

Using the example of Sally to clarify, there are 3 main stages in the process of change that we all must walk through.

  • The Beginning or Contemplative Stage of change is often the most difficult and typically the longest stage. This is the time when we realize things in our lives aren’t, or soon won’t be, working the way we want them to and we are forced to face the source of discomfort and step outside of what we are familiar or comfortable with.  We then realize we have to do things differently (even if we don’t know how).

In this stage, we experience higher levels of anxiety and our level of commitment to the change process increases or decreases depending upon whether we feel motivated or overwhelmed by the change. This is normal and a very healthy process to go through.

Setting healthy and realistic expectations and making short and long-term goals are the first steps towards overcoming the anxiety that often accompanies change. The most important thing to remember at this time is to be patient and kind to ourselves. Change takes time and effort and being hard on ourselves or impatient tends only to make it more difficult.

This is the stage Sally is in right after she leaves her Doctors office until she begins taking steps towards a healthier lifestyle. She knows she has to change but is unsure of where to begin. Because a whole lifestyle change is needed, her decision to fully commit to the process will take some time. When she does commit, Sally needs to set small, achievable, realistic goals with the long-term goal of losing 60 pounds. Because Sally feels overwhelmed, she needs to take time each day for herself – even if it’s only 10 minutes.

  • The Middle or Work Stage of change is where we start to integrate our learning and begin to implement the short and long-term goals set in the beginning stage. Motivation usually rises in this stage as our commitment increases and feelings of being overwhelmed decrease. We begin to take small steps towards our goals and start to feel hopeful that we can get through this and actually reach our destination. We start seeing small differences in our lives as a result of doing the work, which increases self-esteem and reinforces positive behaviors.

The changes have not been mastered at this point, and if stress from outside sources (i.e. work, relationships, finances) peaks during this time we typically resort back to old patterns.  Self-care is important in this stage. Taking time out to do the things that provide comfort and joy is critical to success.

At this point in the process, Sally has been implementing her short term weight loss goals. She is noticing some health benefits because she is feeling more energetic when she wakes up in the morning. When Sally faced the unexpected stressor of her dad passing away, she noticed that instead of grieving his loss through crying and taking care of herself she went on a junk food binge for several weeks after the funeral. . When her daughter asked her about this she realized she needed to get back on track with her goals and allow herself to grieve the loss of her dad properly by increasing her self-care.

  • The End or Maintenance Stage of change is the final stage wherein we take all that we have learned and apply it to our everyday lives. We are able to maintain the new behaviors in times of stress and are able to recognize how far we have come in the process of change. Through continued self-care and kindness towards Self, we can maintain these changes over an extended period of time.

 It has been two and a half years since Sally first received the news from her doctor that her health was failing as a result of her excess weight. She felt great leaving his office today 63 pounds lighter with no cholesterol or blood pressure problems. Having lost the weight and kept it off, Sally feels as though she is actually a different person. The best part is she feels so much better about herself.

Change is an inevitable part of our lives. Thankfully, for the most part, we aren’t aware of small changes when they are happening. When something big does come up, however, it is important to remember that it is possible to get through it, despite how big or unbearable it may seem at the time.  The important thing to remember is that the process of change begins and ends with kindness to ourselves. When we start something new it usually feels foreign and uncomfortable. Over time, if we are caring towards ourselves along the journey and treat ourselves the same way we would treat those we love, it becomes easier and what once seemed impossible or scary now becomes the new norm.

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