The stages of change were developed to better understand patterns of addiction and recovery, but more generally, they can be used to look at any life change we're looking to make.
It's essential to identify your stage of change in identity work to understand the possible motivations and resistance to thinking about yourself in a new way. And it can provide an idea of what kinds of support you might need in preparing to move forward.
I appreciate this graphic from Social Work Tech, which references the stages and reminds us that though we may relapse and repeat the cycle, we learn from what we've been through. It's a spiral, not a track. There are generally six stages of change, which I will talk about below. I'll also give you an idea of what they mean and how to work with them.
Pre-Contemplation means accepting life as you've known and lived it so far, and you're not even thinking about a change.
What to Do: Accept this is where you are, and affirm the life experiences that led you to this place.
What to do: It's ok not to be ready and to decide on your own time. Only you know when it's time to change. Change and growth have consequences; this is a time to explore the pros and cons.
Preparation is when you're planning to make a change pretty soon. It's a time to practice baby steps and begin experimenting with the belief that change will bring positive outcomes.
What to do: Look closer at your concerns about the change, and then problem-solve for those concerns. Start identifying supportive people and resources you can call on if things get tricky.
Action is the stage where you're actively changing. You're practicing what you've been thinking about and visualizing. It's new, but you're getting it!
What to do: You're dealing with obstacles and triggers in the moment, relying on some of the things you predicted in the preparation stage, and recognizing (with compassion and curiosity) the unexpected triggers. As you notice the old thought patterns that led you to old behaviors, you're creating new brain pathways that specifically address those and redirect you towards and reinforce new behaviors.
Maintenance means you've been operating out of your changed perspective for a significant amount of time, mostly successfully - nobody's perfect, and nobody does it 100% of the time. But your persistence has brought consistency. You generally trust this changed thought or behavior pattern.
What to do: Now is the time to reinforce how good it feels having made the change. You did it for yourself, and now you are experiencing the benefits!
Relapse is when you've slipped back into that old familiar brain pattern of your previous beliefs or actions, and it's not feeling good and causing some personal or social problems.
What to do: It's an excellent time to look closer at what was happening to cause the regression - What were the triggers? To identify the triggers, think back to what was happening in your life, thoughts, and social interactions just before this. Collect information on how to address this type of trigger going forward.
Thinking about your identity isn't always a straightforward process. You might not be ready to change your mind for many reasons. The good news is we can work with that.