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The Art of Change

By Martha Ruske

The desire for change is a paradox. We know that it is important to accept ourselves and not be so self-critical, and yet at the same time we may have less-than-desirable habits we"d like to replace, traits we want to enhance, or skills we"d like to develop.

Change happens unceasingly around us and we are called upon constantly to adapt and grow, or wither. Carl Rogers believed that all living organisms have a tendency toward growth, and that as people we strive to actualize our inherent potential.

Then what makes change so challenging? A situation that frequently comes up in coaching is the client who feels he truly wants to change but is baffled by his inability to do all the action steps that he has agreed to do. He started with the best of intentions - what's going on?

Think for a moment about a successful change that you have made. For example, if you are in recovery from an addiction you know that the change didn't happen all at once. It probably took quite a while to work through the denial, the attempts to control, the realization that something had to be done but not knowing exactly what, the knowledge that you weren't sure you really wanted to stop, the decision to stop, the actual stopping, and the integration of new habits and behaviors.

Other changes, too, unfold through a series of steps. Psychologist James Prochaska and his colleagues studied people who made successful changes and identified these stages:

Precontemplation - the person denies having a problem and has no intention of changing their behavior. They might be demoralized and resist talking about their problem because there doesn't seem to be a solution.

Contemplation - "I want to stop feeling so stuck." The person acknowledges their problem and struggles to understand the causes and wonder about solutions. They may be far from making a commitment to action, however.

Preparation - the person is planning to take action within the next month. They are making final adjustments, and have made their intention to change public. They may have instituted a small number of changes already, but they have not necessarily resolved their ambivalence.

Action - this is the most obviously busy period. The changes are more visible to others and receive the most recognition.

Maintenance - change never ends with action. This is the period where the changes are incorporated and the time to be alert to the risk of relapse.

Termination - the former problem no longer presents a temptation or threat, and the cycle of change is exited. (We know in the case of some changes, like addiction, that there is no "cure however.)

You can be at different stages with different issues in your life. Also, the stages are not linear; you can - and probably will - spiral back to previous stages, such as contemplation and preparation, before you are actually able to proceed with effective change.

This is what is so important to realize: spiraling back to previous stages and being ambivalent are all part of change. This does not constitute failure.

So what does that client, whom I mentioned above, need to do?

1. Suspend judgment. It's important that he recognize the stages of change so that he doesn't judge himself a failure. This is not the time for self-criticism.

2. Recognize what he has already accomplished. Behaviors "travel in packs and nourish each other. He might be altering other behaviors or attitudes that will have an influence on the main thing he wants to change.

3. Not give up. It's good for him to sit with those feelings of ambivalence instead of running away from them because they're uncomfortable. Being present with the ambivalent feelings is a step toward change, while putting off change isn't.

A lot of coaching happens in the contemplation and preparation stages. Just because someone has hired a coach does not mean they will be able to immediately take all their desired action steps. But even people who are not ready to act can set the change process in motion.

Think about something you have been meaning to change, or are actually trying to change right now. What stage are you in?

About The Author
Martha Ruske is a marriage and family therapist in California. She currently works with people in long-term recovery from alcoholism, helping them step out into the fuller life they deserve. Find out about the benefits of recovery life coaching and get a free workbook at

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