I felt moved to write this piece because many people who contact me to learn more about doing therapy struggle with knowing when they are ready to make major changes in their lives which they are often terrified of doing. This often creates the emotional state of ambivalence- something I have to navigate tenderly at the beginning of therapy with new clients. They want to engage in therapy because the ways of coping they use to solve problems in their lives have become bigger problems themselves. In other words: their original ‘solution’ to a problem has now turned into a ‘problem’ in and of itself.
A good example of this is when someone is considering giving up a long-standing emotional eating habit which has turned into a serious food addiction. Here is a typical scenario of how this looks in reality:
Sue was Highly Sensitive as a child who felt things very deeply. Early on, her mother admonished her for being “too sensitive” and sent the message to Sue that her feelings were ‘too big’. Her solution? Gorging on sweets from the pantry. When she binged on food in this way, Sue learned to numb her sensitivities and stuff her feelings down. In this way, she was able to survive growing up in an environment which wasn’t supportive of her unique nervous system and emotional needs.
However, when she reached adulthood, she was 100 pounds overweight and became crippled by anxiety and depression. When she called me to inquire about therapy, she knew she had to let go of using food to soothe her mood and numb out and learn some healthy ways to deal with her feelings and her HSP nature, but expressed a lot of fear about making these changes. Hence, the ambivalence arose. She knows she needs to change and that her physical and mental health require her to do so, but she’s scared of giving up the bingeing because she’s done it for so long and can’t imagine how she’d cope with all of her feelings and unresolved issues from the past otherwise.
This is where I usually initiate a conversation about how change works. To make it straightforward, I outline the Stages of Change (SOC)- the model used by addiction treatment centres to assess whether someone is ready to undergo rehab. See the diagram above for a helpful visual of this process.
The following is from: https://www.cpe.vt.edu which gives a wonderful overview of the SOC.
The stages of change:
- Precontemplation (Not yet acknowledging that there is a problem behavior that needs to be changed)
- Contemplation (Acknowledging that there is a problem but not yet ready or sure of wanting to make a change)
- Preparation/Determination (Getting ready to change)
- Action/Willpower (Changing behavior)
- Maintenance (Maintaining the behavior change)
- Relapse (Returning to older behaviors and abandoning the new changes)
When I am assessing whether someone is ready to pull up their sleeves and dive right into the therapy process, I need to rule out the ‘precontemplators’ and ‘contemplators’. They are simply not ready to do the necessary work to make big changes in their lives. I may do an initial phone consultation and tell them to take some time to think about whether they are really ready to make big changes. These people often sit on it for a while and some come back later when they’re ready to do the work.
The people who are ready for therapy are the ones in both the preparation/determination and action/willpower stages- these folks have their eyes wide open and acknowledge that their lives are out of control and that their old coping mechanisms are no longer working and are now a part of the problem they can’t manage on their own. They have moved past their initial ambivalence or ‘fence-sitting’ and are willing to do whatever they have to do in order to improve the quality of their lives.
If you’re contemplating tackling a long-standing behaviour pattern that is causing havoc in your life, look at all of the stages of change outlined above and figure out where you’re at. I invite you to be very compassionate and kind towards yourself as you examine this. It’s okay to be at ANY one of these stages. The point of sharing this information with you isn’t to induce blame or shame in any way if you’re not ready to make a change- just to help you understand the change process itself and that there are multiple stages we need to go through before we’re ready to do the hard work needed in order to let go of self-destructive patterns and adopt healthy, life-affirming habits which nurture our well-being.
If you jump too soon into therapy and you’re not quite ready to make those big changes, you’ll end up wasting money and feeling frustrated that it’s not working for you. Be kind to yourself and gently wait until you come to a deep place of readiness for the changes that will transform your life- you’ll get there. As they say, TIMING IS EVERYTHING.