The Transtheoretical Model of Change

It was Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said, “The only constant is change.” It was I who said, “Change is hard, and I would often rather not do it.” I suspect I am not the only person who has said the latter, though. For all the good we can do—healthier relationships, new careers, improved attitudes—when we decide to change our lives in some way, change can be extremely daunting to initiate.

But there is hope! The Transtheoretical Model of Change predicts how change occurs, conceptualizing change as a process rather than a singular event. One of the things I like about this model is that you get credit for thinking about changing, even before you act on those thoughts. The model is often applies to how change occurs in a counseling context (e.g., marriage counseling or individual psychotherapy) as it relates to problem behaviors (e.g., lack of communication, substance abuse), but it applies to other situations in which individuals decide they want to make their lives different—ostensibly better—in some way. Here’s how it works.

In stage one, the pre-contemplation stage, the person is unaware or only vaguely aware that change needs to occur. S/he might feel frustration in this area of life but not be able to identify why, or his/her role in contributing to the challenges. In a counseling context, the person in the pre-contemplation stage who seeks treatment is usually doing so at the behest of others, who may have issued a request or ultimatum because they are experiencing the negative effects of the individual’s behavior

In stage two, contemplation, the individual becomes consciously aware of the problem and starts to think about doing something to change it, though does not yet take any real action. This is the stage where we get credit simply for becoming aware. Think about it, though. Ever remember a time when you started to realize something about yourself that you had not previously known, something you are unhappy to learn? It’s not fun, is it, that realization process? It is frequently painful. Sometimes it can take a while to process the realization and generate the motivation to do something about it. Sometimes we feel stuck or down on ourselves because we cannot get past feeling stupid. But according to this model, this stage actually requires a lot of hard work, as evidenced by those unpleasant feelings, and we cannot avoid this stage if we want to effect real and lasting change.

Stage three is preparation. This is when we start to send out feelers as to what change behaviors might look and feel like. Maybe we start to recognize that whatever it is that is not changing is not GOING to change unless we commit to doing something about it. We will not lose weight if we maintain our current habits, so we try parking the car far away from the entrance to the supermarket. Just once, to see what it feels like to engage in a bit of physical activity instead of letting the car do the work for us. Through these small attempts, we create the intention to commit to more substantial changes in the near future.

Stage four is action. This is the stage that is generally more visible to others, because it is the stage when we devote significant time and effort toward effecting change, and the results of that decision to change will become more apparent, perhaps in the form of weight loss; different methods of communicating; refusing a drink. This is why it is the stage where we start to get “credit” for our change behaviors. However, it may also be the stage where external pitfalls start to threaten our progress. As others start to notice the changes we are making, they may not be supportive. People tend to think about everything in terms of ourselves, and if we see someone else trying to improve their life in some way, we may find it threatening. I’m not saying this is right or moral, but it is common. I know I have been guilty of it in the past, and I fear I am not done being guilty of it, though I am better able to identify that tendency in myself. This means that the person who is doing the changing must be internally committed and find trusted confidantes to help with the transitions.

Stage five is maintenance. From a counseling perspective, this is well illustrated in terms of changes people make relative to addiction. After going through stages one through four, individuals in recovery must commit to maintaining the changes they have managed in their lives. This may mean not spending time in the places where they used to use, or with the people with whom they used to use. Stage five is about maintaining a new normal, and sometimes it takes significant loss and uncertainty to create the space for that new normal to establish itself.

Not surprisingly, I have applied the transtheoretical model of change to my jiu-jitsu practice, as a way for me to understand how I make improvements to my technique, change up my training schedule when necessary, and figure out what to focus on. Of course, the changes I want to make in my training habits are not on the same level as trying to quit using an addictive substance, but the mechanisms do come into play for me at a much lower decibel level. As I mentioned, I particularly appreciate the contemplation stage, primarily because I spend a lot of time there. But it is also challenging at times to maintain the changes I make (e.g., committing to a different guard pass, training at a different time of day, committing to learning more about coaching, refereeing, and the like). So the model helps me recognize where I am in the change process, what I need to move myself to the next stage, and when I have been camping out too long at a given stage.

What are your experiences with the Transtheoretical Model of Change, whether in BJJ or elsewhere? Post your thoughts to comments.