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Even if you have never been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it is likely that you have heard the AA serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I often hear people saying things like, “It would be so much easier to get along with this person if they could just change ____” or, “My ex and I would have been able to make it work if they hadn’t ____” or, “I don’t understand why this person can’t change their behavior.” These statements often come from a good place because the people saying them care about the other person and want to see them live a happier life. However, they are often followed up with the speaker providing solutions or ultimatums in an attempt to “fix” the person they are speaking about.

The problem is that we will never have the power to change another person.

Understanding How People Change

One faulty belief is that people are not trying to change until we see actionable and lasting change. The following model shows that change is far more complex than this. The stages of change developed by Prochaska and DiClemente are as follows:

  • Precontemplation- A person in this stage may be aware that there is a change that they can make, but they are not aware of a reason why they should change. Resistance to change is very high in this stage.
  • Contemplation- A person in this stage has become more aware that their behavior is problematic and that a change will be necessary soon (typically within the next 6 months). However, they need time to consider the consequences of making a change.
  • Preparation- People in this stage start to make plans for the change and take small steps toward the change (buying running shoes, learning more about nutrition, changing their schedule, etc).
  • Action- The person begins working on the change, but it has not become lasting behavior. The person will need to learn to navigate challenges and relapses.
  • Maintenance- The change becomes more permanent as the person experiences relapses and determines to return to action. This process can take time and often feel disappointing to those around them. It is important to encourage someone in this stage to continue moving forward and learn to overcome challenges.
  • Termination- When a change becomes a habit and the person will not return to their previous behavior.

Knowing these stages of change, we can give more grace to the people who swear they want to make a change, but have not reached the action phase yet. We can provide encouragement as they move through the first three stages without punishing them or making them feel like a failure.

Offering Help Only When Asked

It can be maddening to have gone through a significant change ourselves and see others struggling to make the same change (weight loss comes to mind). Often, we want people to experience the same freedom we have found for ourselves and we will tell anyone who will listen about how great we feel now. However, we have also experienced the people who are turned off by our enthusiasm or unsolicited advice. This is because we cannot force people to change or offer our help unless someone is willing to take it. We see this with court mandated programs. They are often much more successful when the participant believes they need to make a change and wants help taking actionable steps.

To support people through the stages of change, we can ask them for what they need. We can provide advice and accountability when asked. We can change our behaviors to better support them while they are in the action/maintenance stages. We cannot force them to start taking actionable steps unless they ask and have done their own work to change.

Accepting Limitations

Lasting change is really hard. Research shows that it can take at least 60 days for a small change (like flossing every day) to become a habit. This time extends with the more consequences to combat and lifestyle changes that need to be made. It is easier to think of these big changes as little habits that compound over time to become the bigger change. For those of us who are supporting people through change, we can celebrate the small wins with them and accept that sometimes they may become satisfied with how the small changes make them feel. If the changes they make are not enough for you, the decision then comes to you to determine whether you are going to change yourself and accept the person where they are at.

This acceptance process is really challenging. Often, we can be very hurt by the people in our lives who do not leave the precontemplation phase. Sometimes, it is not safe for us to keep these people in our lives or we need to learn how to set boundaries with them. A therapist can help you determine how to move forward in your relationships. If you find yourself struggling, call today to make your first step toward change.

Written by therapist Elise Champanhet

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