The Stages of Change


Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

- Viktor E. Frankl

Evidently, your relationship with an addictive incentive has led you to the point where you are reading about how to get out of it. Coincidentally, the text says that individuals who seek to escape their addictive relationship go through a predictable sequence of stages, which begins with gathering information by reading texts such as this.

Indeed, there is much to learn from observing how addictive relationships tend to play out over time.  The Stages of Change model* emerged from this study.  Individuals who have fallen into an addictive trap tend to cycle through the sequence of stages listed below:

  • Pre-contemplation Stage  – There is no intention to change. It isn’t that they can’t see the solution; it’s that they can’t see the problem. During this stage, incentive use is judged to produce more benefits than costs so there is no motivation to change.

  • Contemplation Stage – The person is aware of the costs of using the incentive and would like to give them up but keep the benefits. This stage of ambivalence may last for a long time, during which a lot of damage can be done.

  • The Decision – When it becomes clear that the costs of incentive use far outweigh its benefits, there is a conflict between motivation based on rational processing and the desire to continue to use the incentive. The Decision ends the conflict. .This stage marks the transition between contemplation and action. It lasts only as long as it takes to crystallize your abstract values into biological motivation . The labor of transforming your decision into worldly action occurs during the Action Stage.

  • Action Stage – This is the period of time during which you develop and execute the plan to change the course of your life with the understanding that you will have to execute it during situations when local conditions will motivate you to defect.

  • Relapse Prevention Stage – Hopefully you will follow your path of greatest advantage for the rest of your life.  As you do it becomes progressively easier to follow and eventually becomes the default path. Nevertheless, once you have developed an addictive relationship with an incentive, you become much more vulnerable to relapse than seems to be the case. Most people are surprised to discover that a single lapse generally precipitates a complete relapse. Relapses are costly. At a minimum, you will have to recycle back to the contemplation stage and go through all the stages again.

Stage related comments

  • Contemplation Stage: If you do not know what your interests and principles are, there is little motivation to resist temptation. The Contemplation Stage is the place to discover, define, and declare your Core Motivation, which includes your Core Values [The criteria you use to appraise the payoffs of the options available to you] and your Hierarchy of Motivation [Rank ordering of you motivations, with the most important on top].
  • Note: Controlling your incentive use may be an essential sub-goal; but the purpose of your life is not: not using the incentive.  What is your Core Motivation? What is meaningful to you? What do you really want for this one precious life you have to live?  If, like most people, you are not sure about your Core Motivation and how to define your path of greatest advantage, this section of the course may be the most important. If you already clear about your core values and hierarchy of motives you can take the short-cut to declare your Decision and then move on to the Action Stage.
  • The Decision: The passage from dependence to self-determination begins with the decision to undertake it. Implied is the understanding that once you make a commitment, you cannot violate it —  even during moments of great stress or temptation. Be aware of the distinction between a goal, that gives direction to an undertaking, and a decision. If you make a decision and fail to honor it, you compromise the integrity of future commitments  —  see: What it Means to Decide.

  • Action Stage: Once you prioritize your desires so you appreciate what is most important to you, then you are ready to develop the skills and faculties to follow your path of greatest advantage despite the pull of stresses and temptations that would influence you to defect. To act as intended during high-risk situations, you will have to develop a plan and execute it when doing so is difficult.
    Note: For those who have clarity about their values and motivations, the Action Stage is the primary focus of this course. This stage tends to last from 3 months to 3 years [the time it takes for the path of greatest advantage to become your default path].
  • Relapse Prevention Stage: Relapse Prevention is a continuing responsibility for the rest of your life. Your history of using the incentive to get pleasure or relief had the consequence of creating Incentive Motivation. While this certainly complicates things, the extra burden you will carry can enrich your life. People not caught in an addictive trap can live an entire lifetime and never consider their values and what is most important to them. Your predicament not only forces you to choose your path of greatest advantage, but to stay this path by continually exercising, and thereby strengthening, your will.

    Understand this: Relapses happen. The suffering they cause does not free you from the burden of getting yourself to act responsibly now by returning to the contemplation stage and starting again. [If you do not have a clinician local to you, or you would like to discuss your situation with our clinical staff, please feel free to contact us]..

A Path Through the Stages

As you progress through this course you will face a series of challenges, each requiring something different of you. Unlike the development of physical maturity, which unfolds all by itself, this developmental passage requires you to accept the responsibility to learn the skills and strengthen the faculties to cope with the high-risk situations you are bound to encounter. Since this course about self-direction you will have to make navigational decision as you proceed.

The self-referential aspects of this course put you in an interesting position. You are both the agent of change and the object to be changed. In your role as agent of change, you will have to select the tactics best matched to your unique circumstances. For example, if you are already in the Action Stage, you need not spend much time on Contemplation Stage exercises — at least for now. Once the decision has been made, additional study and insight of why it is important to change is a distraction.

On the other hand, Action without insight produces short-term change. So,.do not invest too much attention developing the change strategies associated with the Action Stage until you have decided that you will go to any lengths to do what needs to be done.

My part of our collaboration is to provide the tools that enable you get what you want —  before it is too late. Your part is to decide what you want — before it is too late. The objective of the Contemplation stage is to study and appreciate your values and your greatest desires: Your Core Motivation. The value of this course will be revealed during times of conflict between your Core Motivation and Incentive Motivation.

The nominal mission of the Contemplation Stage is for you to identify and declare your Core Motivation. The extremely valuable byproduct of investing the time and energy to participate in the exercises is to increase the salience of your Core Motivation.


* Prochaska, J, DiClemente, Carlo & Norcross, J - In search of  how people change:   Applications to addictive Behavior.   Amer Psychol, 1992,47, 1102- 1114

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