THE CHALLENGE OF CHANGE
The first and probably the biggest step this book asks of you is to recognise the need to make some changes to increase your wellbeing.
Very probably you have already taken this step, and perhaps all you need to do now is close a health gap that you already know about and are willing to work on. On the other hand, you may have been given a lifestyle prescription, or face a major transition in your life and simply not know how to go about achieving it.
A question I’m often asked is: “why is change so difficult?”
Surely if you know what you want, why you want it and how to get it, there’s no problem? Well if only it were so easy.
The fact is that making improvements to your health can be difficult at times, especially when past attempts have been marked by negative experiences or failure.
Change is rarely just a one step process, if you have the energy, focus, enthusiasm and willpower to make the improvements you need without resistance, then good for you, keep going.
More usually when you say, “I’m going to change,” you move through a series of well recognised phases. Starting with not being interested, perhaps even denying the need to improve at all, through exploring how to make the process as quick and easy as possible and then eventually actually doing something about it.
Having some understanding of these different phases is important because knowing where you are in the change process allows you to access the right techniques and resources to help you move forward to the next stage. It helps you overcome procrastination and fear of the unknown that is so often the cause of failure.
THE SIX STEPS
There are six well recognised stages of change. If you would like to read more about them I recommend you read James Prochaska’s excellent book ‘Changing for Good’, but for now let me give you a short overview of each stage to help you recognise where you are in the process. They go something like this:
STAGE 1 – PRE-CONTEMPLATION
If you are reading this book because you are thinking about improving your health, or perhaps even been told that you need to change for the sake of your health, then you may well recognise yourself as being in the stage of pre-contemplation.
Until you recognise that you need to make an improvement or adapt to a new circumstance the chances are you will remain blissfully unaware that anything needs to be addressed, or even that a problem exists at all. In this stage, your level of discomfort has not yet reached the point where the effort required to change has become worthwhile. It’s a phase that is characterised by the words ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’. Then the day eventually comes when you realise that things are not going to get better unless you actually make them better.
This is the step I want you to pay most attention to because it reflects your inner acknowledgement that adjustments are needed, even though your conscious mind may still be resisting the process.
One of the greatest challenges of this stage is that when you put your attention on what needs to be done, often for the first time, it can actually make you feel worse, as you become daunted at the prospect of what lies ahead. This is a crucial point in the change process and if you get stuck at this stage you can end up feeling deflated and exhausted very quickly. Worse still you can end up going back to your old habits and thinking patterns having concluded yet again that ‘it won’t work’ or that you can’t do it. What you need to do is focus your attention on the probable consequences of not changing, then immediately start to put support structures in place to help you move through this phase as quickly as possible.
For example, you could:
- Build up your knowledge about the risks and consequences of staying the same.
- Refer back to your list of values to help you generate leverage by increasing your desire for something better.
- Realise that your past does not have to equal your future.
Understand that it is entirely normal to feel ambivalence, reluctance and even fear about the prospect of making adjustments in your life. These are all very common emotions but they are not an excuse for ignoring your health.
STAGE 2 – CONTEMPLATION
In this stage, you know that there is a problem and something needs to be done, but you don’t necessarily know what to do about it yet. This is an information gathering stage where you are most likely to say to yourself, “I might change”, but without making any form of real commitment. It can also seem like the low before the high as you place your awareness on all of the things that you want to be different, so it’s essential that you don’t let yourself become overwhelmed at this stage.
STAGE 3 – PREPARATION
At this point, you have made the commitment to change but still have some preparation to do before you put those improvements into practice. There is hope on the horizon now and this stage is often characterised by the words “I intend”.
STAGE 4 – ACTION
Success is now in sight. Your increased awareness, learning and preparations all help to raise your enthusiasm and motivation to succeed and your original level of discomfort starts to recede. At this point, you are actually ready to say “I am…” One of the dangers here is that this stage can feel so encouraging that you might be tempted to stop before you have fully achieved your goal.
Don’t stop. Keep your original goal up in the forefront of your mind and make sure that you keep focused on the specific and detailed criteria that will signal your true success.
STAGE 5 – MAINTENANCE
This stage is all about staying on track and moving forward. It’s a case of “I still am…” and is characterized by the need for persistence until your new lifestyle overrides the old one.
STAGE 6 – RECYCLING OR RELAPSE
At this point in the cycle, your new choices should be such an ingrained part of your life that they become automatic and go unnoticed. It’s a time of celebration and perhaps also a time to raise the bar on your best achievements so far. It is also the time to consider what new goals you might have for yourself now.
Occasionally this point in the cycle can also be marked by relapse and if this is the case you will find yourself back at the beginning of the spiral of change yet again, contemplating and preparing for a renewed effort. Don’t beat up on yourself if this happens. Change can be difficult at times and it may well be that for some of your goals you need to take one step backwards in order to take two steps forward. But keep going.
ACTIVITY: WHERE ARE YOU?
Pick one of your key goals from your Wheel of Wellness and consider which stage of the change cycle you are currently in.
What could you do to help yourself move on to the next step of the process?
Here are a few examples to get you thinking:
- Use some of the self-help tools mentioned later on in this book such as affirmations or mental rehearsal to help bolster up your motivation for a better life.
- Consider what the consequences would be of not changing in one, five and even ten year’s time. What might your health be like then if you don’t take this opportunity now?
- Get some professional help from someone who is 100% supportive of you such as your doctor, nurse, nutritionist, personal trainer or coach.
What would be the single most practical and helpful thing you could do to help yourself follow through on your new choices and actually put them into practice?
YOUR CHAIN OF CONSEQUENCES
One of the consequences of health coaching is that it’s not just the individual who is being coached who gets to benefit. Other family members and even work colleagues can often be inspired by your pursuit of a higher level of wellness. It’s really a joy to see this happen but I need to issue a word of warning here. It’s simply this, don’t expect everyone else to get on board with you and share your enthusiasm. You may have decided to step out of your old comfort zone but if you happen to share that comfort zone with other people, especially close family members it can be very disturbing for them to suddenly have to adapt to your new way of doing things. It can cause great resentment at times. Once you are aware of this, it is usually possible to win them over, or to adapt your new practices so that the other people aren’t affected.
ACTIVITY: DRAWING OUT YOUR CONSEQUENCES
Drawing out your chain of likely consequences is immensely valuable. Your potential results are made clearly visible and this makes it much easier for you to take responsibility for your choices, whatever they are.
There are two ways you can do this. Option one is to take some paper and draw a circle in the middle to represent the first link in your chain. Label this circle with some keywords that reflect the topic you are considering such as ‘my weight’ or ‘confidence’ or whatever it is that is of most concern to you. Alternatively, you could draw a line down the page with spaces like rungs on a ladder up and down the line, again imagining that you are in your present situation in the middle of this line.
Beneath your central link or rung of the ladder add some more links to reflect what will happen if you don’t take positive action. What will be the likely consequences for you? For example, if you want to lose weight but take no action you may end up feeling like a failure, not looking as you would wish, or increasing your health risks in later life. What would be the knock on consequences of this as the years roll on?
Now add some more links to the chain running in the opposite direction, to the top of the page, to reflect what would happen if you took some positive action to achieve your goal. What would your consequences be now? Perhaps a strengthened self-image, delight in looking at your new shape in the mirror, a better social life and so on. Think ahead a few years, what would be the future consequences to your overall health if you decided to take action today?
Here are some fairly typical comments to get you thinking.
reasons why I don’t want to change
- It will take too much time.
- We’re all like this in my family.
- I’ve always been like this.
- If I do this, what else will I have to do?
- It will be uncomfortable or difficult.
reasons why I am now ready to change
- I’m tired of putting up with this.
- I don’t like myself like this.
- I don’t want to lose my friends/mobility/ability to work etc.
- I’m afraid of the consequences if I don’t make this change.
- I don’t want to take drugs or have surgery.
When your chain of positive consequences becomes longer than your chain of negative consequences then you are ready to take action. If it is the other way around then you will probably find that you had a low score when you mapped out your intention to succeed on the Wheel of Wellness exercise and you may need to do some more work to raise your level of motivation in this area to help you move forward.
Before moving on from this exercise, stop to think about how these consequences also relate to your most dearly held values and to what you think you want for yourself in the future. How big is this gap between what you value and want for yourself and the consequences of staying as you are?
The important point here is to know that no matter how big the gap is you can cross it. Improvement in your wellbeing, however small, is always possible.
It is said that whatever you resist persists. This is because it can take a lot of energy to actually resist doing what you know is really good for you.
Look back at what you drew of your Wheel of Wellness. What aspects of change were you ambivalent about, or even actively resisting?
If you are feeling ambivalent then you are probably feeling as though you are in a tug of war between two opposing emotions that end up leaving you in a place of indecision and inaction. That is not a comfortable place to be. Of course, it is entirely normal to experience ambivalence from time to time. It can even be used to give you some extra time for consideration, to really weigh up the pros and cons of what you are aiming for but it is not useful or healthy to stay in this place of indecision for very long.
ACTIVITY: ELIMINATE AMBIVALENCE
Consider which of your goals leave you feeling ambivalent. For each of these goals reflect for a moment on the pros and cons of staying the same rather than changing.
Before you can get past your own reluctance to take the difficult actions necessary for achievement you need to make sure that your desire for success is stronger than your reluctance to move forward. One way to do this is to make your future vision even bigger, brighter and more inspiring. For example don’t just think about losing a few pounds, see yourself in fabulous new clothes, in new and exciting social situations, or shining with a new-found confidence. Create a vision for yourself that is so inspiring it actually pulls you forward towards your achievement rather than leaving you feeling as though you have been pushed around.
The people who are most successful at achieving great things usually have a compelling reason to do so. What is it that will compel you to work your way beyond reluctance?
Let me encourage you to make your dreams as big, exciting and undeniable as you can. Let yourself be inspired and enthused at the possibilities that lie ahead and you will soon find that you can swiftly move past any reluctance you may encounter.
“Change is a process, not an event.”