• Marianne Gernetzke, MS, NBC-HWC, A-CFHC

Creating Movement Forward: Getting Out of Chronic Contemplation

Many clients comment that they find themselves talking a lot about change, but unable to execute change. This observation often causes frustration and disappointment for the client. However, this is not an uncommon dilemma, regardless of what type of change you are working towards.

Contemplation is the stage of change where we can find ourselves excited about change, convinced of the reasons to change, but not yet ready to create and sustain change. Usually, in a state of contemplation, we’d like to institute a change within the next 6 months. But in some cases, we may find this state of contemplation continues for far longer.

What can we do if we find we are still “spinning our wheels” weeks, months or years later?

Researchers Prochaska and Prochaska, authors of Changing to Thrive (2016), describe common challenges that may lead to a state of chronic contemplation:

  • Doubt may overwhelm us. We ask whether the change is truly worth it and choose not to act. We watch for assurances that we won’t be sorry.

  • One reason we procrastinate on progress, staying in a place of chronic contemplation, is our desire for safety. We fear failure and find that we cannot fail if we are only thinking or talking about the problem. We subconsciously choose to stay where we are because our fear of failing is greater than our fear of not trying at all.

  • We find that the moment we begin to take action and increase our risk of failure, our anxiety rises. So we stay in place to avoid that anxiety.

  • We also may decide we MUST have certainty before moving forward. We desire full understanding, full confidence, and/or a perfect solution, and ONLY THEN will we be ready to go on. Unfortunately, this level of certainty is rare.

  • Sometimes our desire for certainty causes us to choose falsehood. For example, we would rather believe we are lazy or incapable than experience the anxiety of uncertainty. It feels safe to know we are right about something, even if it is untrue or harms us.

So, what can we do about these challenges?

1. Reconsider your judgment towards yourself about failure and/or laziness! Research and the Transtheoretical Model of Change tell us that it is in human nature to fail as we learn new skills, but we can always try again. A setback does not have to equal failure.

Consider a toddler learning to walk. If he or she falls as they take their first steps, have they failed? Absolutely not! There is no rule about how many falls they can have during the process of learning. And if they stop and rest, or revert to crawling for a short time, they are not “lazy”. We would not judge a small human in this way, so why do we judge ourselves in this manner?

What happens if you give yourself permission to occasionally fall down on the way to meeting your goals? Does your definition of “failure” change? What happens to your anxiety?

2. Be open to adjusting your deadlines. Often when we set out to meet a goal, like weight loss, or quitting smoking, or learning a new skill, we set deadlines for ourselves. We want our change to occur quickly and be permanent. But change is a process, not an event.

Learning/change does not always occur in a linear fashion and it takes practice to sustain change over time. We continuously take a few steps forward, and then a few steps back. Change is a spiral process.

In recognizing the non-linear process of change, we may not always arrive at our end-goal at the same deadline we hoped for. Adjusting our deadline may be part of the process as well.

If you recognize your setbacks as part of a process of moving forward, rather than failure, do you still feel the same shame about those setbacks? Or are you just taking a side-step? What happens if you give yourself permission to adjust your deadline if you find yourself taking a side-step from time to time?

3. Give yourself permission to start over again. Sometimes, in the process of change, we choose to stop trying, with the attitude “why even bother?” But is it true that you and your efforts don’t matter?

We only truly fail when we stop trying.

Consider the example of bathing or showering. If you have some event sidetrack you from taking a shower on a given day, do you respond by throwing up your hands and deciding you are done with bathing yourself forever? Probably not. This would be silly, wouldn’t it? Most individuals easily return to bathing/showering as soon as they can, without shame.

We can apply the same attitude we hold about bathing/showering to each and every task on our journey. When we view every day as a new day or new opportunity to learn, we discover endless opportunities to start over.

4. Be aware of all-or-nothing thinking. We can sometimes fall into a trap of deciding that we must be 100% certain that we will become 100% successful, or we have failed completely. This type of thinking can truly disempower us, because it means we will fail at our goal 99% of the time. What happens, if instead of setting ourselves up for certain “failure”, we redefine success as existing in a range of increments?

We can aim for 100% success, but we are all human and 100% success may be an unrealistic expectation. Success may instead lie within a gray area: for example, someplace between 60 and 100%.

If you redefine success as a range of targets, what happens to your confidence that you will succeed? How much more control do you have over your final outcome?

5. If doubts still remain, do your research, and practice comebacks to your arguments! Usually when we are in a state of contemplation, we are aware of the many benefits of the change we desire. But we might still be unconvinced that the benefits outweigh the cons. We might find we are still making excuses.

Prochaska and Prochaska (2016) find that you can increase your likelihood of moving out of contemplation if you actively work to decrease the cons. In other words, if you can remove your arguments against the change, you will become more free to move forward.

Identify the objections you may still be holding on to. For example, “this change takes too much time”, or “it is easier” to continue my negative habit, or “by remaining so stressed/anxious about this situation, I am making myself more productive”. Ask yourself if each of these objections is truthful.

Next, create comeback arguments to each of your objections. It may help to write them down. Each time you find yourself making an excuse, stop your thought, offer yourself kindness and compassion, and state your comeback instead.

If you remove your arguments against change, what happens to your motivation to move forward?

6. Finally, consider how your change will affect others in your social environment. Prochaska and Prochaska’s research informs us that “self-changers” tend to move out of a state of contemplation more easily if they take time to notice how their negative habits are affecting others around them.

Notice, for example, if your behaviors are causing others to worry about you, if your choices are negatively affecting the emotional or physical health of others, if your change has the potential to positively inspire change in others.

When you consider your friends, family, and/or coworkers, how will your change positively affect them? How does this understanding motivate you to move forward?

In conclusion, we may find ourselves feeling “stuck” in contemplation when we fear failure, desire safety and certainty, or hold onto doubts. By giving ourselves permission to make mistakes, working to adapt our thought processes, being more honest with ourselves about our expectations, and increasing awareness of ourselves and others, we may be able to free ourselves and move forward.

Have these strategies been helpful to you? Please comment!

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