Climbing Out of the Hole: Stages of Behavioral Change

| Katherine Roethling, LCSW

If you have listened to your car radio at any point over the past year, you likely have heard the wise words of Taylor Swift singing out “It’s me, hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.” Not only is this phrase catchy and fun to shout out at the top of your lungs, it actually fits surprisingly well into the Transtheoretical Model, also known as the “stages of change.” This theory posits that behavioral and psychological change happens over the course of 5-6 stages, with a person’s awareness, willingness, and readiness to change increasing over every stage. 

Precontemplation: An individual may not be aware that their behavior is problematic, and    they do not have plans to make any behavioral or psychological changes. 

Contemplation: The individual recognizes that their behavior may be problematic, and they may start to consider a future change to their behavior, but they are largely still ambivalent about taking steps to change.

Preparation: The individual sees how a change to their behavior can lead to positive outcomes, they make intentions to change in the near future, and they may start modifying their behavior in small ways. 

Action: The individual has recently changed their behavior and intends to continue to keep moving forward with the behavioral change.

Maintenance: The individual has sustained their behavioral change for a significant amount of time, intends to keep the change, and often makes efforts to prevent relapse.

Termination/Relapse: This sixth stage, which is not always reached, involves an individual having no desire or urge to return to the previous behavior (termination), or returning their old patterns (relapse). 

Singer/author Portia Nelson wrote a beautiful poem entitled “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,” which does an exceptional job of spelling out the stages of change through a metaphor of coming across a hole in the sidewalk. She describes the first stage (precontemplation) as falling into a deep hole in the sidewalk, feeling upset and hopeless, and struggling to find a way out of the hole. The second stage (contemplation) involves walking down the same street, seeing the hole ahead, but still falling into the hole. With each stage, the narrator realizes their role in falling into the hole, learns how to climb their way out, and eventually walks down a different street. 

What I love about this poem is it shows that behavioral change is both a physical and an emotional process. The Transtheoretical Model, Portia Nelson’s poem, and Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” all connect to that feeling of frustration and helplessness a person often has when they see that their behaviors are hurting them but are not yet able to change them. However, this is a reminder to everyone that every step, whether it be realizing a problem exists or maintaining a behavioral change, brings you one step closer to climbing out of that hole. 

Today's the day to make a change.