Stages of Change

We all struggle with bad habits and addictions that make our lives difficult.
Some we've been unable to give up and try not to think about.
Here's why, and how to make progress.

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Heading Toward Understanding and Hope

At least at times, you probably feel some shame and hopelessness about these things.

That’s understandable. We all do.

But it helps to understand other things that – when it comes to bad habits, addictions and other bad behaviors we can never seem to quit – we all have in common.

There are ‘stages of change’ everyone goes through in trying to change their own behavior. Learning them will help you be more effective at making changes in your life – including cutting yourself some slack when you really need and deserve it.

Common Problems

Guys who’ve had unwanted or abusive boyhood sexual experiences commonly:

  • Try to manage bad feelings and other unwanted experiences with old habits that are self-destructive or just don’t work very well any more.
  • Depend on alcohol or drugs to block out painful experiences or get positive ones; deliberately harm their bodies to become numb or feel alive; compulsively use pornography; impulsively blast anger at others; and/or provoke others to reject, abandon or abuse them.
  • As kids were not taught by adults more healthy ways of handling bad experiences.
  • Feel their bad habits are the ‘only’ ways to cope – or the only ways that don’t require trusting or depending on others. (We can know something’s harmful but fear that giving it up would leave you even worse off.)

The Five Stages of Change

The stages below apply to behaviors we try to change, whether on our own or with others’ help.

1. I Don’t Want to Know

You don’t see the problem.

If you do anything to change the behavior, it’s only because you feel pushed by others.

You’re not (yet) committed to changing the behavior, or addressing the problem, let alone getting help.

What ‘works’ depends on what stage you’re in.

You’re avoiding doing anything to change your behavior. Others may see you as ‘in denial.’

If people try to get you to focus on changing, it doesn’t work at all.

Why? If someone’s pushing you, then he or she isn’t meeting you where you are.

Instead, you need a chance to talk about your mixed feelings, and how you see the costs and benefits of both changing and not changing.

In such a conversation, the other person does not argue for change and does not take sides in the debate going on in your head. Otherwise, they are in the position of advocating for change, and you are likely to ‘dig in,’ argue the other side and justify your behavior – rather than thinking about change.

It’s crucial to understand this stage, and the kinds of conversations that keep people stuck here or help them move forward.

For more on relating to people in this stage – whatever the problem is – including people you care about but are having trouble helping, see ‘Why Pushing Him Won’t Work’ and ‘A More Effective Approach to Talking With Him’ in the Finding Help under For Family, Friends & Partners.

2. I’m Thinking About It

You’re distressed about your problem behavior, or a problem area in your life, and you want to get some control over it.

You’re seeking to better understand the behavior or problem, and thinking about making change.

You haven’t taken action yet, or even committed to doing so. But you’re definitely evaluating the pros and cons of sticking to the behavior versus making changes.

Important at this stage is ‘consciousness raising,’ or learning new information that supports making the change.

For example, you may not know if you really want to learn about the possible effects of unwanted sexual experiences in your life, or how to deal with them effectively. If so, then reading the information on this web site is a consciousness-raising experience, which helps you sort things out and consider your options.

Also important here is ‘self-reevaluation,’ or starting to see yourself as someone who could be free of the problem behavior. Again, the focus is not yet on behavior change – which would be a ‘mismatch’ for you at this point – but on doing things that may strengthen your motivation and commitment to make a change.

3. I Want To, I’m Getting Ready

You seriously intend to, and are ready to, change your attitude and your behavior.

Are you expecting too much, too soon?

You’re on the verge of taking action.

You’re engaged in the change process. And you’re prepared to make firm commitments to follow through on the action option(s) you choose.

Consciousness raising and self-reevaluation are still important, but here they’re focused on strengthening your commitment to change and to following through with change behaviors.

Still, it’s not about getting or finding methods for change, let alone being pushed into action. It’s about strengthening your motivation for those actions that you are on the verge of choosing and taking.

4. I’m Doing It

You’ve definitely decided to make change, are very motivated to change, and have spoken or otherwise demonstrated firm commitment to doing so.

You’re making active efforts to modify your behavior and/or your environment. And now you’re willing to seek out and try strategies suggested by others.

A wide variety of methods, from self-help to specific therapy interventions and various other resources, are finally appropriate for others to suggest and to help you use.

It’s still essential that your freedom to choose, and to use whatever methods in your own unique way, are respected.

5. I’m Staying On Track

The behavior change has been made and maintained for at least several months.

You’re working to sustain changes achieved so far, and much attention is focused on avoiding slips or a full ‘relapse’ back to your old ways.

You may still experience fear or anxiety about relapsing, and worry about how you’d deal with a situation that made you want to go back to the behavior you’ve quit.

The stages play out in cycles. We all ‘backslide’ sometimes.

You may face less frequent, but still strong, temptations to ‘go back.’ That’s totally normal and natural, and doesn not mean you’ve lost – or are going to lose &#150: your strong motivation and commitment.

Just the opposite: If you no longer fear relapse, you may be at greater risk for letting down your guard and making a slip.

But as time goes on and the behavior change gets more ingrained in your life, such fears and temptations naturally tend to decrease.

Many behavioral change and maintainence methods are useful during this time. The mix that works for you may evolve, with some becoming no longer necessary and others more appropriate.

But you’re still making use of various methods to stay on track and to keep up your new behaviors and habits.

Part of Life and Relationships

We’ve all made behavior changes in our lives by going through these stages. You may be in the midst of making one now.

Or maybe you’re focused on someone else who ‘needs to’ or ‘better’ make a change. If so, you might try this: first, reflect on your own experience of going through the stages with something particularly difficult; then think about what stage the person you want to change is in now, and about how helpful you’ve been to him or her.

Maybe lately you’ve been pressuring yourself to change. Maybe you’ve been impatient, judgmental, or otherwise ‘hard on yourself.’ If so, you might try this:

  • Think about what stage you’re in right now, in terms of the change you want.
  • Ask yourself, ‘Am I expecting too much, too quickly, of myself?’
  • Take some time to sort it out. ‘What’s really going to be helpful to me now?’

Final Key Points

First, these stages almost always play out in cycles. We gradually advance, and occasionally slip or ‘relapse’ back to earlier stages, before (eventually) moving forward again.

Every one of us has sometimes, typically during times of stress and/or lack of support, reverted back to old problem behaviors (and to not wanting to see them as problems).

Second, at any particular time, only one or two behaviors can be such change projects. We can only do so much at once.

Third, for many men struggling with the effects of unwanted boyhood sexual experiences, the first stage of recovery includes coming to terms with the need to change bad habits that used to be ‘survival skills.’ After that, they can develop the motivation and commitment to change, then make use of change methods that are available.

Improving your life is very much about going through these stages, over and over again, in different ways. That’s true whether you’re dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction, repeating abusive patterns in current relationships, or a variety of other problems common during the first stage of recovery.

Fourth, where someone is in these stages determines (1) what he or she is open to hearing from a friend, partner, therapist or anyone else, and (2) which treatments he or she is ready to benefit from.

Generally speaking, experienced and skilled therapists understand these stages and are good at matching what they say, and the treatments they provide, to where their clients are.

Fifth, understanding these stages, including how they play out in cycles and how unwanted sexual experiences can cause problem behaviors that can’t be changed all at once or without occasional ‘backsliding,’ can be very helpful. It certainly brings more patience and acceptance of ourselves and others.

Finally, if you seek out treatment, keep these stages in mind. When you’re focused on a particular goal, or on a particular type of behavior change that you want or that other people want you to make, you can make use of this understanding.

You can talk with a therapist, or another trusted and supportive person, about what kinds of conversations will meet you where you are, and will help you sort through your own mixed feelings – about your behavior and its consequences, about your values and motivations, and about your options for making changes that work for you.

Expert Views

William Miller & Stephen Rollnick

People often get stuck, not because they fail to appreciate the down side of their situation, but because they feel at least two ways about it. The way out of that forest has to do with exploring and following what the person is experiencing and what, from his or her perspective, truly matters.

Humiliation, shame, guilt and angst are not the primary engines of change. Ironically, such experiences can even immobilize the person, rendering change even more remote. Instead, constructive behavior change seems to arise when the person connects it with something of intrinsic value, something important, something cherished. Intrinsic motivation for change arises in an accepting, empowering atmosphere that makes it safe for the person to explore the possibly painful present in relation to what is wanted and valued.

Additional Resources

AddictionInfo.com has a nice, brief overview of the stages of change model.

ETR Associates has a good page on the processes of behavior change as described by the model.

The University of Rhode Island’s Cancer Prevention Research Center has a more detailed overview.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council has a 5-page PDF document that nicely lays out the stages of change, as well as appropriate interventions at each stage.

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