Learning to Embrace a Process

By: Jamie Bussin

So the origin story goes, when I say it off the top of every episode of the talk show; “I’m a former commercial litigator who lost over fifty pounds when I was 38 years old…”. A change of career. A change of health lifestyle. You’d be forgiven if you came away with the impression that I am the poster boy for change. I did successfully change careers. And I have successfully changed my health. Those are two extremely challenging things to do. But the details paint a more complicated story. 

I drifted away from law, because it wasn’t making me happy and so I wasn’t prepared to invest the long hours necessary to garner the success and satisfaction I wanted from my professional life. I made a change to live a healthier lifestyle out of fear. With a family history of cancer and heart disease I was afraid that if I didn’t lose weight and get healthy I wouldn’t survive a health crisis I was likely to endure. I didn’t embrace change. In both instances I felt that I had left myself with no other choice than to change – I was living in a state of crisis. However, once I made those choices, I worked hard to see them through.

I don’t disdain the “new”. I don’t have difficulty making decisions. But I do find comfort in the familiar. If I see value in a person, thing, process or activity my modus operandi is to stick with it. The old saying is “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. My saying? “If I don’t believe it’s broke, I ain’t gonna fix it.” Which brings me to this article. I’m starting to believe that my relationship with change is broken.

I think that it’s natural to resist change (to some extent). By that I mean that we’re sort of hardwired to live our lives in patterns or habits, which are familiar and give us comfort. Neurologically, our brains seek out certainty and approach a lack of certainty (which is inherent in change) as a threat. Our “fight or flight” instinct is to fixate on a perceived threat and so our initial response to change is emotional, rather than intellectual.

From a psychological perspective our self-worth is edified by our previous successes. Change inherently suggests a flaw in the status-quo and accordingly undermines our perception of said successes. That, in turn, casts doubt on our ability to successfully make a change – for fear of failure. And as a practical matter, mastery, or a sense of control is more uncertain when you’re attempting to do something new. 

Then there are the social and actual physical perspectives of change. Will others accept us if we do something different? What are the potential consequences of change (will I financially succeed, will I do harm to myself and loved ones)? There are a lot of factors that mitigate against change.

Change isn’t a result. It isn’t an event or a singular action. Rather it’s a process. The Transtheoretical Model aka The Stages of Change Model, developed by Prochaska and DiClementi in the 1970s by observing those who were trying to quit smoking explains the process as having six stages:

  1. Precontemplation – In this stage, people don’t intend to take action in the foreseeable future – they don’t accept that there is a problematic behaviour that requires changing. People in this stage often underestimate the pros of changing behaviour and place too much emphasis on the cons of changing behaviour.
  2. Contemplation – In this stage, people recognize that their behaviour may be problematic. They intend to start healthy behaviour in the foreseeable future (ie. six months). Typically they see the pros and cons of change as being roughly equal and thus tend to be ambivalent. You might get stuck at this stage of the process for months or even years.   
  3. Preparation (Determination) – In this stage, people are ready to take action within a fairly short period (a month) . People start to take small steps toward the behaviour change, and they believe changing their behaviour can lead to a healthier life. (ie. collecting recipes for healthy entrees)
  4. Action – In this stage, people have recently changed their behaviour (within the last six months) and intend to keep moving forward with that behaviour change. People modify their problem behaviour or acquire new healthy behaviours. (diet, exercise, a new job etc.)
  5. Maintenance – In this stage, people have sustained their healthy behaviour for a while (more than six months) and intend to maintain the new behaviour going forward. They work to prevent relapse to earlier stages. I think this is when the changes become part of a new lifestyle
  6. Termination – In this stage, people have no desire to return to their unhealthy behaviours and are sure they won’t relapse. Note: this stage is rarely reached. People tend to stay in the maintenance stage.  In my experience with healthy diet and exercise, this is certainly true.

The Stages of Change Model is neither linear nor perfectly illustrative of the real world. For anybody who’s tried to lose weight (despite the best of intentions) they know that the cycle of action-relapse-maintenance may play out multiple times. Similarly, the model contemplates that people make coherent, logical plans, …when clearly many of us don’t operate that way. That being said, there’s an elegance to the theory: which posits that people in different stages of the model need different things – whether it’s information to help form a decision at the early stages, tools to facilitate that change at the preparation stage or a conducive environment for those who are acting on or maintaining change. Understanding that helps us make necessary changes.

Mindfulness expert Tracey Soghrati thinks that mindfulness, or being present in the moment, gives us the capacity to overcome our habits. In episode #113 of the talk show, she posits that although we are inherently resistant to change, we live in a world where change is all around us. So we must be prepared to confront the vulnerability that comes with the inevitable change. That puts us outside of our “window of tolerance”. In order to cope with the difficult feelings of being outside of our comfort, Tracey recommends that we itemize our domains (work, relationships, physical health etc) and identify what is working well…and then ask what you can do to make your life (within those specific domains) better, in a sustainable way. 

Tracey thinks that we have to be the architects of our own lives. If that sounds daunting, it needn’t. Referencing “Automic Habits” by James Clear, she espouses his “1% Change Rule”: If you change little things by 1% on a daily basis the cumulative effect will be massive. The small changes work to create a positive feedback loop that encourages further change.  But patience is required – change doesn’t happen overnight. 

For life coach Hina Khan, how we feel about our goals will determine whether we are capable of the change necessary to attain those goals. In episode #219 of the talk show, she explains that it is our self-image that determines our success; and that unfortunately we can never outperform our self-image. The key according to Hina is to identify what we really want (not what we’ve been told to want or what society expects us to want) and then set about facilitating the necessary change. Rather than getting bogged down in the logistics of what is necessary to facilitate the change, we should align our actions to how we feel about the goals we’ve chosen to achieve.  Whether you feel better about the concept of change as a logical process or a manifestation of your desired goals, I hope that this article has kickstarted your quest for improvement.

Jamie Bussin is the Publisher of The Tonic Magazine and Host of The Tonic Talk Show/Podcast…which he hopes he can do forever.