Stages of Change

That Nike commercial that tells us “Just Do It!”, irks the hell out of me.  While intended as an inspirational message of empowerment, it misses the mark on how to create and sustain lasting change.  As I’ve come to realize (both professionally and personally) change is a process that takes time.  When I reflect on my own steady progression of growth thru life, two resources seem to describe this journey well.  The first is the transtheoretical stages of change model which addresses feelings of ambivalence toward change:

“People who successfully make changes in their lives progress along a continuum of predictable stages: 1) precontemplation – not aware of, or minimizing the problem; 2) contemplation – acknowledging the problem and considering possible changes; 3) preparation – making plans; 4) action – following through with plans and 5) maintenance – keeping the new actions as a part of daily activity” (Frasier, et al, 2001).

The second resource which inspires this post is a book by Carl Rogers (2012) titled “On Becoming A Person”.  While the stages of change model provides a witnesses acount of the change process, Roger’s description is a first-hand perspective.  In one interesting segment of this book, he describes a continuum of openness to change.  In an attempt to describe this continuum he makes the following observation:

“[this] Process involves a loosening of feelings. At lower end remote and unowned…At the upper end process of experiencing a continually changing flow of feelings becomes characteristic of the individual.” (Rogers, 2012, p. 157)

It is worth noting that while Rogers, (2012) description of change is similar in many respects to the Prochaska’s Transtheoretical model, it is comprised of 7 stages. Additionally, Rogers theory describes an abstract growth process as we move from ridgidity toward openness to change.  What I like about Rogers theory is it describes this process of change as a gradual transformation in how we relate to our feelings.

In this post I intend to discuss the process of change from two unique standpoints. One perspective will provide a theoretical overview of the stages of change from those in the helping professions. Another perspective will be a first-hand accounting of my experiences in a past relationship.  In this emotionally abusive situation, I underwent the very stages of change described here.   With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I am grateful for where I am today.  That experience is a stark contrast to my current marriage to a wonderful and loving man, almost 17 years.  I’ve honestly had to step back and debate whether or not I wish to share this experience in such an open forum. My decision is that openness & honesty will be 2 essential guiding standards in the creation of this blog.  After all, hiding experiences like these implies shame – which is unwarranted.  It just also happens to be the “badass” alternative, 🙂 🙂 🙂 …

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Pre-Contemplation

22033“Precontemplation is the stage in which there is no intention to change behavior in the foreseeable future” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).

Second Hand Observation

According to Prochaska’s Transtheoretical model of change, individuals here are unaware of their problem and are reluctant to discuss matters in detail.  Rogers, (2012), notes an “unwillingness to communicate [about] oneself…communication is [instead] about externals…feelings are neither recognized or owned.  Personal constructs…are extremely rigid” (p. 133).  Feelings are managed with a goal of repression, in order to maintain a sense of security thru avoidance.  Unwilling to seek help independently, clients often enter counseling at the insistence of someone else.

First Hand Experience: “The ‘IT’ years…”

First Year of College…

“There is no need to talk about it: it won’t change a thing,” (Fraser, et al, 2001, 214).  This was my attitude in the first year of our relationship.  I felt a sense of complete hopelessness and lived in denial of the problem.  It was my first serious relationship and introduction to the dating world.  I was in my second year of college when we met, although not your “typical young adult”.   He was my first serious relationship:  prior to him I hadn’t even so much as even kissed a boy before.   I had just left high school that previous year, with a huge chip on my shoulder.  I was a bullied child with a well of unresolved hurt.  Since my best friend, Ruby Stricker moved in sixth grade, I hadn’t experienced a feeling of acceptance or belonging amongst peers.  I was the girl with the cooties that got picked last in P.E., and sat alone at the lunch table.  By the time I reached high school, I would go weeks without speaking more than a few words to people.  These exchanges included “pass the salt” (at home), or “can I use the bathroom” (at school).  This left me with six full years of stagnation in the area of social development.  While I was eighteen chronologically, an insecure sixth grader still lurked within.  As a result, I had huge expectations for my freshman year.  I hoped to make friends & wanted nothing more than to be accepted.  As you might expect, reality didn’t live up to expectations.

While I did experience some companionship with fellow dorm residents, a cavernous divide separated us.  They were your typical college freshmen, and I was  “different”.   Conversations with fellow dorm mates provide a unique window into this divide and my “burgeoning issues”.  Concerned for my level of naivety, the developmental divide between us made it difficult for me to be regarded as an equal.  I recall being very frustrated by this: their parental concern angered me.  Today, I realize I had misperceived it as a demeaning insult.  I wanted nothing more than to be like them, but had no idea of how to make up for “lost time”.  I finished that first year with very few friends and still had yet to go on my first date.

As I entered my sophomore year, I was still completely ignorant of my “issues”.  The consequences of my own chosen methods of adaptation to bullying continued to play out.  The self-imposed isolation throughout teens, now made it difficult to relate to those my own age.   Desperate to solve the problem, I was eager to to take the first “zero-to-sixty” route to maturity I could find.  Little did I know, I was to meet a guy who would deliver just that “and more”.

Meeting “IT”

(((FYI – in conversations with my family about this time of my life, my mother has requested we not mention “that name” .   In time we’ve adopted the nickname “IT” to refer to him.  I use this in reference to this individual throughout the post))) 

…From the moment we met, we were like moths to a flame, drawn to each other for all the wrong reasons.  We were the other’s “quick fix” solution to unresolved hurt.  His involved a complicated relationship with a “domineering” mother.  Mine involved a chip-on-your-shoulder mentality in the aftermath of prolonged bullying and emotional neglect.    We never did have that “honeymoon period” common in most “unhealthy relationships” (Burman, 2003; Fraser, et al, 2001).  Instead, I would describe our relationship from the start as a “boot camp” in which IT made the development of a traumatic bond, his priority.  I lost my virginity very early.   It happened so fast, I remember it in retrospect as an unreal “out-of-body” experience.  It was only when he crawled on top, that it dawned on me what was happening .  My head spun: it was over almost as suddenly as it began.

He immediately set a plan in motion, to turn my insecurities into a certain self-perceived fact that I was totally worthless and helpless without him.  Reading me like an open book, he berated me for my inability to fit in.  I was ugly and stupid.  He told me there was no way any other guy would want me.  I believed him, (based on past experience, it appeared a logical conclusion at the time).  This resulted in the gradual reinforcement of learned helplessness (Burman, 2003; Fraser et al, 2001).  He would push the boundaries of what I would put up with, by using my naivety to his advantage.  He dangled “girlfriend” status in front of me like a carrot on a stick.  Achieving this status meant doing what he said, no matter how crazy, willingly and without complaint.  If not, I was to receive anger and rejection.  This was an unthinkable horror I intended to avoid at all cost.  I “NEEDED” him.  Before long, I was his personal slave –  the sole reason for my existence was to do his bidding.

Now under his “complete control”, the next phase of his plan was set into motion.  He started to isolate me from others, insisting I move to another dorm and take a single room.  Away from my friends, I was alone again, just like high school.  Old insecurities re-emerged and with it, crippling depression.   I only wanted love and acceptance. He utilized these urgent needs to his favor.  He was very possessive and insisted I never leave his sight without his say.  However, he cheated on me constantly – openly and without apology.  In fact, he would share intimate details of his “trysts”.  He insisted I listen attentively without complaint so he could drive home the idea that I was lucky to have him.  Fearful of rejection, I complied as instructed.  At first, it was difficult to conceal my feelings.  I would sob uncontrollably while he laughed and called me pathetic.  In time I learned to separate myself from my experiences, as if I were floating outside my body and witnessing the events like an observer.  He could do as he pleased – I felt nothing.

In time, he was my “sole source” of acceptance and love.  Desperate to have somebody in my corner, “losing him” was now a source of fear and panic.  I was “lucky” to have him and fell for his plan; hook, line and sinker…

Contemplation

image“Contemplation is the stage in which patients are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about overcoming it but have not yet made a commitment to take action.” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

In the contemplation stage, a growing ambivalence begins to emerge as individuals begin to struggle with their own self-evaluations of dysfunctional behavior, (Norcross, et al, 2010).  Aware that a problem exists, individuals often describe feeling “stuck”.  Concerned about the energy and risk involved in change, resistance prevents further action.  Stages two and three in Roger’s description of growth/change provide additional insight on the nature of this resistance.  In stage two, problems are acknowledged but externalized (Rogers, 2012).  Feelings start to ‘bubble up’ and are unacknowledged.  Emotions are used to assess what is of value to us.  In phase three, an emerging understanding develops of how emotions exist in reaction to events while also defining their nature.  With this realization, we begin to re-examination our perceptions and beliefs of the situation. “Is all as we perceived it to be?” Questions such as these produce a growing awareness of our problems.

First Hand Experience

The move to New York…

The burgeoning depression I felt as a result of his imposed isolation was now intermingled with a constant state anxiety and feelings of hoplessness.  My body was a jumble of nerves, I couldn’t keep food in me, my heart was pounding out of my chest.   This state of “near panic” was due to the unthinkable:  losing what I perceived was my only real chance at love and belonging.    The very idea of this terrified me.  While I didn’t have the courage to “hurt myself”,  the emotions were overwhelming enough, that this option was starting to become quite attractive.

As the semester came to a close, he began planning our next move.  By this time, I had managed to alienate myself from all the friends I made first year.  We were spending every minute together.  He refused to let me out of his sight.  During finals week he made an executive decision that we were to hop the next Greyhound to New York City – his hometown.  Plopping down two duffle bags in my room one day, he told me to fill them up and “leave the rest of your shit here”.  I did as I was told, and only informed my parents of our move after arriving in Staten Island, where his mother dropped us off at an apartment she found.  With only $1000.00 in our pocket, it was my job to figure out how to support both of us.  I got a job at a restaurant, and begged my parents to help and they relented.  However, I received an angry letter from my father shortly thereafter, demanding “how could I do this”.  He told me I made my mom cry in attempt to induce guilt.  In short: I was “disappointing them”.  My sister, then only 12, was incredulous at how stupid I was.  “I would never hurt mom and dad like that”, she exclaimed, and set forth a path toward “being perfect”, that involves always following the rules as the “good girl”.  I was angry, for their failure to be there when I needed.  Couldn’t they see how this was an end result of years of many years of bullying and torment?

It was when we arrived in New York, that a new phase of our relationship began –  10x worse than what I had experienced previously.  Every second of my day was lived in a “pins and needles” like environment.  Trying desperately to “hold my head above water” emotionally, my only concern was to please him.   This meant stressing over every little thing.  The food was too “salty”.  I forgot to “lay out his clothes”.  Every little misstep was intermingled with negative commentary about my ineptness.  He called me “pea-brain” because I was so stupid.

The control was also amped up by this point, since we lived together.  There wasn’t a single move throughout the day that I could make without his say so.  He controlled the money, so I couldn’t do anything without his permission.  I was only allowed to eat small amounts of food, including oatmeal and ramen noodles 1-2 times daily.  My weight plummeted to around 90, (at 5’8″).  I was anorexic looking.  Meanwhile he ate like a king and started gaining lots of weight.  I remember watching him consume food longingly while crying inside because the hunger was beyond bearable.  He did this intentionally because it drove me crazy.

The demeaning and controlling behaviors steadily increased as his demands became more and more insane.  I was to sleep on the floor next to his bed like a dog because this enforced my status in the relationship.  I only entered it when he wanted “to get him some”.  I spoke only when spoken to.  I was to refer to him as “Sir”.  I had to ask permission to take a “piss”.  I was allowed to bathe only once every week or two for minutes at a time or he would pour a bucket of ice water on me.   After months of this, I was dirty and smelly since I rarely bathed.  My hair was greasy and tangled since I rarely had an opportunity to groom.   My clothing was usually disheveled since I only had minutes to dress.  I now looked like a starving, homeless, crazy drug-addict.   People walking down the street would stare at me visibly in horror.

The return home…

After a year of this, he decided a move was in order.  He felt moving to my hometown was a good idea since it was more affordable.  He also discovered he could manipulate my parents into giving me money, due to their concern for my well being.  By this time, I felt stuck and totally helpless.  I was certainly sick and tired of his treatment, but felt there was no other option.   I did recognize by this time that our relationship was a repeat of my childhood.  I knew it wasn’t a coincidence, that old traumas and fears from then were  re-emerging.  He was my “band-aid”: used to conceal issues I hoped to avoid. Like an addict in need of a “fix”, he had me where he wanted.  There was nowhere I could go.   By admitting this to myself, I was able to examine how the past explained the present.   However, I was still not strong enough to process those old memories.   I preferred, instead, to box them up in the attic of my mind with all the other baggage.

Preparation

22039“Preparation is the stage in which individuals are intending to take action in the next month and are reporting some small behavioral changes” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144)

Second Hand Observation

In the preparation stage, clients begin making “baby steps” towards lasting change (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).  With a full awareness of one’s problems, clients in this stage are ready to begin taking action in the upcoming months.  In this stage our goal is to begin understanding our situation more fully as we prepare to institute some big life changes.  Emotions are expressed with greater intensity regarding current experiences and past events.  The client begins to understand the importance of accepting and claiming ownership of all emotional experiences (both good and bad).  However, especially hurtful and traumatic experiences are still met with resistance.  Underlying a desire for change “is a realization of concern about contradictions and incongruences between experience and self….Example: I’m not living up to what I am” (Roger, 2012, p. 138). 

First Hand Experience

Fast-forwarding a few years, we now live in my home town and are working on completing a bachelor’s degree.   The relationship – as described above –  is otherwise unchanged.  I learn to acclimatize through a state of (almost perpetual) dissociation and numbing.  I am much like a marathon runner, emotionally conditioned to the situation.  Gradually, I gain awareness of the patterns in our relationship.  I come to understand that the unresolved insecurities from childhood bullying are a core component.  A sense of incongruency develops when I recognize this emerging clarity isn’t reflected in my dysfunctional life choices.   I desperately desire to leave, but feel incapable and stuck.  There is no pond to jump to where acceptance and love lie.  The only other option is aloneness – which frightens me.  A series critical incidences occur during this time which force me to examine our relationship further…

The first incident occurs just before Christmas break….

We had just finished our first semester back at school after a move from New York City.   We were living in the dorms at that time and planned to move in my parent’s apartment house once a vacancy opened up.  As Christmas neared, my mother insisted I come home to spend time with the family.  Her parents had just moved into the house after immigrating from the Philippines and she wanted me to spend time with them.  I was happy to see my grandfather, and desired to see him more.  Our last visit was when I was nine and he spent the summer at our house.  I remember growing close to him and being sad when he left.  When my mom stopped by the dorms to pick me up, IT forbade me to go.  A shouting match occurred between them and before long they are each holding me by an arm, pulling me in opposite directions.  After what seemed like an eternity, my level-headed father tells us to get in the car so we could discuss this.  Once we climbed in the car I noticed IT was crying(!).  I was shocked in that moment to discover IT’s “iron clad” armor was actually just show.  In reality, he was a scared and insecure child inside.   The only compromise we could come to, was for IT to accompany me to their house during the day and sleep at his place at night.  Mind you, the dorms were closed and he had nowhere to stay.  The only spot he could find was a van with and extended cab, in the driveway of a university maintenance worker’s house.  It was cold, dirty, and smelled of gasoline.   I hated him for ruining my Christmas and returning all the presents so he could spend the money.  I hated him for the time he took away from my family.  I hated him for making me sleep in that disgusting van.  Still, I felt completely helpless….

The second series of incidents involves encounters between IT and my former classmates.

On one such occasion, he informs me of two new friends he’s made: former bullies of mine.  IT talks about the time they enjoyed hanging out and describes their conversation.  He makes sure to tell me they thought I was a loser and I should be dumped.  On another occasion, I discover he was cheating on me with the most popular girl in school.  Again his storytelling involved a detailed accounting of their times together.  After years of this same treatment, I began questioning these stories as part of his plan to brainwash me.  However, when this girl started following me around in her car whenever I went out, I thought maybe there was a grain of truth to his story.

With every incident like this, the chinks in his armor start to appear.

I come to realize in time that he is completely full of hot air.  Underlying a thin veneer of confidence and good showmanship, is a well of insecurity and ineptness.   Underlying his assertion that I’m a helpless idiot is the reality that I’m pulling all the weight.  I work hard to support the two of us, (he is unemployed and only receives tuition money from his parents).  I work hard to help him get good grades (while holding down a full schedule myself).  I wait on him hand and foot, (he does nothing).  My hopes for love and belonging are now shattered.  I am now completely numb to any and all emotions – like a robot.  He is an asshole and I despise him but feel stuck.

Inside my mind, an emotional equation functions much like a “scale of justice”.   On one side, are the emotional burdens associated with being in this relationship.  On the other side are insecurities, feelings of worthlessness, and traumas I hope to avoid.   As each day passes, a few pieces fall from one side of the equation to the other.  The options of staying and leaving play out in this manner as I weigh this decision.  It is only a matter of time before the scale finally falls in the opposite direction….

Action

 image“Action is the stage in which individuals modify their behavior to overcome their problems” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

The action stage is observed through changes in a client’s behavior with the commitment of time and resources to sustain such a change (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).  Rogers, (2012), provides commentary regarding Stage Five of his own theoretical model in the following statement: “There is an increasing quality of acceptance of self-responsibility for the problems being faced, and a concern as to how he has contributed” (p. 142).  Client’s in this stage display a heightened emotional awareness expressed as a desire to gain clarity.  As a result, feelings are experienced in the present.  This is accompanied with a “desire to be the ‘real me’” (Rogers, 2012, p. 142).  This need for change is goaded by a desire for honesty and self-responsibility (Rogers, 2012).

First Hand Experience

My Grandfather’s Passing….

In my junior year, my grandparents decide to move in with my aunt who lives in Texas.  As Filipinos accustomed to a tropical climate, they disliked the South Dakota winters.  Sad to see them leave, I promised to myself that “someday” I wouldmake time for them.  However, later that summer, my grandfather is hit by a drunk driver while out enjoying a bike ride.  I packed quickly and traveled to Texas with my family for the funeral.  I was numb and quiet throughout the visit.  I got my first taste of “freedom” in four years at this time. I could eat whatever I wanted, I didn’t have to ask permission to piss, and took leisurely showers every morning.  After relaxing into these experiences, nagging thoughts began to enter my brain.  My grandfather would never get to see me “well”.  His last memories of me woud be in this state of “fuckedupness”.  Of all my grandparents, I felt closest to him.  Our only time meeting was during the summer before I turned nine.  I began reminiscing about that time and was saddened by the fact that I lost our final opportunity to spend time together.  The real “kick in the gut”:  I chose instead to focus on appeasing “that bastard” waiting at home.  I knew there was something I had to do.

The London Trip.

On the way home from our trip to Texas, my mother expressed her concern.  I was quieter than usual, and she didn’t understand “what was wrong”.  An overwhelming sense of dread washed over me as I admitted to her that I wasn’t looking forward to getting home.  I didn’t elaborate but she knew implicitly what I had meant.  “Serendipitously”, just weeks after that exchange, my mother arranged a two week family vacation to England.  She then called IT’s family back home in New York and encouraged them to fly him home, since IT would be alone during this period.  They do, and somehow, (despite “his” protestations), I have a two week vacation to look forward to.  While over there, I’m treated to another two weeks of complete freedom.   On our third night there, I confess to my mother I needed to leave and felt now was my only real “safe chance”.  She gave me a hug and promised to be there for “moral support” during this call.   Our conversation was very brief and I’m not sure what I said.  I only know my heart was exploding out of my chest and my hands shook uncontrollably.  After a quick “I can’t do this any more”, he says “okay whatever” and drops the phone.  IT’s father then gets on the line and says he has to retrieve his son, who is outside in the snow without shoes or a shirt on.  I’m bawling at this time, but grateful for the courage I’ve mustered.  My mother gets on the phone and exchanges pleasantries with his dad.   I’m shocked – it’s over as quickly as it started.

The rest of the vacation is a blur.  My mind is muddled and my emotions are up and down like a roller coaster.  No longer numbed and in a state of robotic dissociation, my thoughts and emotions run wild.  While grateful to be out of the relationship, years of emotional brainwashing still remain.  I am still that addict in need of her “drug of choice”.  The emotional withdrawal of going cold turkey is unbearable.  “White-knuckling” it inside, I do my best to give “good face”.  I am strangely fearful and anxious without him nearby, (knowing we will probably never see each other again).  While I was able to contextualize these fears as based on his “emotional conditiong”, they remained unabated.  Unable to enjoy the vacation, I tried my best for my mother’s sake.  From an observer’s perspective, this decision might seem courageous.  From my own, this decision amounted to me “yelling uncle”.   Emotionally, I just had the living crap beat out of me.  I left the relationship that day, an empty shell with nothing left to give, a shadow of my former self…

((In the video below, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess crosses the finish line completely exhausted, after running a marathon during the 1984 Olympics.  It visually depicts my emotional state during this time:))

Maintenance

24816“Maintenance is the stage in which people work to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

The maintenance stage can be observed as the sustained maintenance of behaviors incompatible with one’s problems for a sustained period of time (Norcross, et al, 2011).  Rogers, (2012), describes stage six of his model of change by stating: “Once an experience is fully in awareness, fully accepted, then it can be coped with effectively” (p. 145).  Where there was once stuckness there is now allowing.  Where there was once resistance there is now acceptance.  As a result, the client is able to handle the problem effectively.  Problems are not externalized as “somebody else’s fault” so we can play victim.  They are not taken inward with a sense of shame while we “beat ourselves up”.  Instead, “he is simply living some portion of it knowingly & acceptingly [one step at a time]” (Rogers, 2012, p.150).

First Hand Experience

The aftermath…

With IT out of my life, I was able to move forward.   I began to relax into the simplicity of daily life.  I redecorated my apartment, and removed anything that reminded me of him.  I enjoyed  the pleasures of complete freedom.  My grades and overall health improved and I got my emotional “sea-legs” back.  After graduation, I moved to be closer to my sister and found a job.  Still not “over” the effects of all these experiences, I tried my best to manage them.   In those early years, I began to focus upon healing and addressed the most raw wounds of that period.  The support groups I attended were a vital lifeline.

20-20 hindsight…

It is now over 20 years since I broke up with this guy.   I don’t know where to begin discussing this last stage of change.  It just might need to be the subject of another post, since this one is already much longer than I had intended.   I can, however, reassure you that in time even the deepest wounds heal.  It’s taken a long time to work through the effects of this experience and put it into perspective.  In fact the last reminants of baggage from that relationship have finally been put to rest in the last few years as I’ve worked in repairing the relationships in my family.  In case you are wondering, I’m happily married now to a loving man and enjoy a relationship that once seemed impossible.  Today, memories of this experience rarely come up. I can honestly say I hold no ill-will towards IT. Healing began as I examined those reasons for entering and staying in such a relation.  I took a DBT therapy skills group and started procrssing old traumas.

In time, I discovered that in order to move forward, I would need to forgive and begin healing.  Doing so has been essential to make room for the “good stuff” that has since followed.  In fact, this experience provided me a chance to grow.  Strangely, the relationship I enjoy now, stands on the shoulders of lessons learned during this time…

Over the years I’ve learned that guys like this follow their own fucked-up rule book.  Click here for insights on how to spot a guy like this…

References

Burman, S. (2003). Battered Women: Stages of Change and Other Treatment Models That Instigate and Sustain Leaving. Brief Treatment & Crisis Intervention. 3(1).
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. Random House: New York
Frasier, P. Y., Slatt, L., Kowlowitz, V., & Glowa, P. T. (2001). Using the stages of change model to counsel victims of intimate partner violence. Patient education and counseling, 43(2), 211-217.
Norcross, J. C., Krebs, P. M., & Prochaska, J. O. (2011). Stages of change. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(2), 143-154. doi:10.1002/jclp.20758
Rogers, C. (2012). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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