Why no one ever takes your advice

March 19, 2016

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In the early 80's, somewhere between 1-5% of the U.S. population would die from smoking-related disease. Today, we have the internet, and the percentage of the population getting sick, physically or psychologically, from various ideologies is unquantifiable. Now, as then, people could benefit from the Stages of Change Model which shows why good advice falls on deaf ears.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


In the early 80's, somewhere between 1-5% of the U.S. population would die from smoking-related disease. It was a problem. Today, we have the internet, and the percentage of the population getting sick, physically or psychologically, from various kinds of fucked-up ideologies is unquantifiable. Now, as then, people could benefit from the Stages of Change Model. It shows us why good advice falls on deaf ears. The key to the model is the recognition that, most of the time, people are just going to continue doing whatever it is they're doing. You just have to watch for your chance to intervene.

Stage one: Resistance and denial

At first, people are completely uninterested in changing. Also known as the 'pre-contemplation' stage, people won't recognise a need to change or have any intention of doing so. If they aren't avoiding the subject entirely, they're defending their behaviour and will reject  any arguments to the contrary.

In this stage, frankly, there's little point trying to help outside of the physical removal of the person from the problem. From drug addiction to cult indoctrination, the first stage is the most helpless.

Stage two: Recognition

The next stage is one characterised by thought, and indeed is called the 'contemplation' stage by many researchers. Here the need for change is recognised, although perhaps not entirely, and our hypothetical person-in-need has started to weigh up whether or not to do anything about it. While this may sound like a step forward from the outright denial of before, it isn't necessarily the point of intervention.

You see, people in this stage are undergoing what is essentially a cost-benefit analysis. Unless they can see that the pros of changing outweigh the cons of remaining the same then nothing will change. It's a stage still often characterised by resistance. Overt signs of encouragement might be seen as 'pushiness' and defensiveness will result. In this stage, the key is quiet support and agreement, only when our person-in-need indicates that they might have an issue. Raising issues that they haven't might lead to a situation that feels more like stage one.

Stage three: Preparation

Here, the need for change has been finally been accepted and our person-in-need is starting to make the necessary preparations to enact it. However, there are large risks here. These preparations represent a time of great turmoil as our person-in-need comes to grips with what needs to happen. Under the pressure to change, with a long road ahead can make creating action plans and deadlines seem stressful and difficult.

In the effort, the key is to provide support in a way that doesn't contribute to their feeling of being overwhelmed. Support to develop plans and to break problems down into smaller pieces. Support to see that the task ahead isn't quite as impossible as it feels.

Stage four: Action

Now the preparations are complete and the plans have been enacted, but we're not out of the woods just yet. While there is a great deal of openness to the need and the means of change, the temptation to relapse is quite high. Our person-in-need hasn't yet made their new position a habit, and slipping into old habits is a risk made even more difficult by the fact that there may be resistance to change from other people in their social environment that have yet to see the need to change.

The ball is in their court though, so all we can do is encourage where we can. Encouragement, and not force however, because if our person-in-need fails to achieve a sense of mastery over their own path to change, the chances of relapse are much higher.

Stage five: Maintenance

This basically refers to the portion of a person's journey towards change in which they are trying to maintain their changes. Clinicians normally classify someone as having moved into maintenance after about 6 months. There still may be a chance of relapse, but this risk declines over time. All we can do is continue to encourage, with emphasis on support when our person-in-need expresses fears or temptations to relapse.

Stage six: Relapse

Very likely, at some point along the path, our person-in-need will relapse to a greater or lesser extent. Taking on old behaviours, or patterns of thinking. Relapse can happen at any time, although it becomes less likely as time goes on.

Yet, relapse isn't always a bad thing. In fact, it's usually a helpful learning moment. One can use a relapse to identify where plans were over-ambitious, or where the sticking points exist. It's a setback, but sometimes setbacks are necessary to clear obstacles.

That said, our person-in-need is not likely to see it this way. Those experiencing a relapse are much more likely to see themselves as failures. This could manifest in a number of ways; dismissal and avoidance for example; or sadness and guilt. The key is to now feed into these feelings. We must instead help our person-in-need to see that this can be a reflective experience—something that will help them do things better next time. We should normalise the experience—relapse is perhaps the most common feature in any pathway to change. It's a part of the process, and we simply must frame it for what it is—an opportunity to improve.

Outro

Every person's pathway to change will differ in trajectory. Few paths are linear, and some stages may stick for longer than others. The key is understanding what support is best, and when, and intervening only when you can.

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