Over twenty years ago, Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross came up with the transtheoretical model of change. Every person has some theory of how people change, including the person himself or herself changes (though they may not be consciously aware of their own self theory). Counseling theories have their basis on how a person changes. Cognitive behavioral theory looks at self talk and whether beliefs are rational. Solution focused theory has you come up with how you want to be and find ways to get there. Some people change for others. Some change for themselves. One study used college teachers with no counseling background to help students work on personal problems through talking. Each professor came up with a theory of how they did the work and helped facilitate change. The transtheoretical model is not a theory, but a picture of how change occurs regardless of the theory.  The authors observed people quitting smoking on their own and documented how they did it – the stages they went through during the course of change.

What they found was that people went through several stages. The first was the pre-contemplation stage in which the person was not aware of the issue that needed change or rationalized that it was okay. “Cigarettes don’t hurt you, my grandfather smoked every day and lived to 90.”  At some point the person did start to think about the issue, and that stage was named contemplation.  The person would start to actively learn about the issue and start to frame it as a problem. The third stage was preparation in which the person would start to make plans on how to make the change and set a date to begin. Next came the action stage in which the plan was put into play. Lastly was maintenance in which the change endured. What they found was that people did not progress through the stages in a neat linear fashion, but typically in a circular way. One would go from pre-contemplation to contemplation back to pre-contemplation to contemplation to action to contemplation, etc. Our thoughts and actions are dynamic and subject to change. We can understand that when it is our own change we are working on and can rationalize what are seen as setbacks.

When the change is in someone else, though, we can get frustrated. “Why did they relapse? Can’t they see what they are doing?” Yes, but you are not seeing it through their eyes. It is much easier to judge someone from the outside.  The authors have suggestions for activities at each stage to help with change – things such as conscious raising at the pre-contemplation stage.  They wrote a book for people to use who are trying to change on their own called Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. The sixth stage is termination. You are sure the change is permanent.

At times our frustration comes from wanting change to occur quickly and wanting people to skip stages. We want them fixed now and want it to be permanent. Why can’t they go from pre-contemplation straight to action and maintenance?  Steven Johnson has written an excellent book called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He discusses the process of the fruition of ideas and with that, change, in individuals and in culture. A major part of the book is the work of Stuart Kauffman and his idea of the “adjacent possible.” There really are no isolated “aha” moments. Those moments are the accumulation of years and sometimes decades of a person putting together pieces of ideas internally and looking at them from different angles. One of the examples he uses is reviewing the process ofDarwin coming to his theory of natural selection for evolution. It literally took decades. You can picture the process by visualizing a room with four doors. To get to the adjacent possible, you open a door that takes you to another room of four more doors. You can go from room to room but you cannot jump rooms. When people try, the change does not occur. Johnson uses the example of Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine of the 1830s. It was amazing and so far ahead of its time that it could not have worked in its own time, though now computers like the concept of the Analytical Engine are commonplace.  When we try to jump straight from a pre-contemplation mindset to action, the odds are stacked against us no matter how good the intentions. We have not set the groundwork for succeeding. We have attempted to jump past the adjacent possible.