Updated: Jan 28, 2022
Moving beyond addiction requires life altering change. And, believe it or not you are already an expert on change because you’ve had plenty of practice in life making small and large adjustments along the way. You are even equipped with all the skills you need. A little honing up on them here and there will get you where you want to be.
Knowing the three stages of change can help you understand what you have gone through during previous changes in your life and what is needed to realize your desire to live truly addiction-free.
The ‘Letting Go’ Stage of Change
The first step of change can sometimes be the most painful. In order to move through the change process you will have to let go of something. Something must come to an end. You may have already experienced this stage of change from the end of a relationship, end of a job, end of security, or the end of an unfulfilled dream. You must at some point let go of the past to be able to accept and prepare for change. Now, it is time to let go of your addictive behaviors so you can move into the life you desire. Just this recognition places you in the beginning of the “Letting Go” stage.
It is hard on our human nature to let go of what is familiar – even when the old might not serve us well. It may be difficult to come to terms with many of the underlying emotions, embarrassments, and actions you must face that may even sabotage your efforts to do so. During the letting go process we usually go through a grieving process. The more attached we are to the old, the more we will grieve.
Most grief professionals agree that the grieving process consists of five stages:
Denial – Believing that this is “just a dream” or “just a phase”. It’s really not happening.
Bargaining – Believing that we can negotiate our way back to how things used to be.
Anger – Feeling intensely about how “unfair” the situation is. We may even experience anger toward other people, believing, it’s their fault.
Sadness – Feeling lost, alone, or vulnerable. Sometimes this can deepen into depression and requires professional help.
Acceptance – Realizing that things will not go back to the way they were. You are now ready to move forward.
The order of the stages may shift and you may vacillate from one to the other and back (from anger to sadness and back to anger). The important lesson is to understand that these feelings are normal and are necessary to complete the grieving process. If you find yourself stuck in the grieving process at any step of the way, engage the services of a professional counselor, clergy, or coach to give you guidance.
‘Transitional’ Stage of Change
Once we have moved through the ‘letting go’ process, we find ourselves in the second phase of change. This is the period of emptiness and uncertainty. This is also called the transitional time - the time between letting go of the old and fully embracing and adapting to the new. During this time you may feel like you are lost. You don’t know what to do. You don’t know what is expected of you. This is unfamiliar territory. Nothing feels the same. The old is gone, the new is unknown and you are in between. This can be a really vulnerable time where the certainty of a drink, a drug, or behavior comes knocking like a long-lost friend. So hold-on tight for now is the time to take heart and trust in the process.
Like a farmer, it is the time that the fields appear to lay barren, but in reality they are becoming nutrient rich for the next crop. This is your opportunity to become nutrient rich. As you review the following ideas, select one or two that you can commit to as you move through the transitional phase of change. If you do, you will be enriching your spirit, your mind, your future relationships, and your skills all the while feeling better and better with each passing day. And implementing these ideas will make this phase easier to undergo.
Do something that makes you feel in control. (And we’re not talking about holding the television remote!). Don’t sit around making excuses about why you can’t do something, just give it a try. Be sure that you choose a project that gently pushes your energy level – and more importantly, one that you can accomplish. Stick to it until you finish.
Take stock of your life and choose one or two areas to focus on that can greatly impact your future success. Take action. Take an on-line course, sign up for a language class. Or a dance class. Study other religions. Learn to type using all your fingers! Whatever you do, give it your best effort.
Think bigger and bolder. Daydream. Visualize yourself immensely successful. See yourself in a new light. Create a collage of your best self. Your aspirations. Your talents.
Do not confuse the present with the past. Remind yourself, in spite of past reactions to change, you are older, more mature, and wiser. You have the skills you need to not just survive, but to thrive during this newest change.
Accept that this is an awkward stage. Ask for patience and support from people who are in your corner. Ask them to be patient, but not to let you become complacent.
The transitional time of change is an opportunity to evaluate any previous decisions you might have made, any relapses you might have had. What did you learn? What should you learn in order to prevent a similar experience from happening? What will you do differently the next time you are in a related situation?
Remember, old habits are hard to unlearn. You might be tempted to rush into the first relationship that comes your way. Or take a job that is completely unsuited for you. Or give into friends asking you to join the party. The transition time is the time for you to sort out the past without recreating the past so you can build a bridge from the past into the future and enter the next stage of change.
‘Starting Anew’ Stage of Change
The third phase of change is starting anew. Patience may be required as you embrace a new situation or a new identity. Take small steps as you learn the skills, habits, and behaviors associated with the new. Avoid the temptation to replicate the old. Look at opportunities with fresh eyes – a fresh spirit. Most people find that in retrospect, the change they feared and dreaded was indeed an opportunity for growth. And that is what thriving is all about.
Carl Brand sums it up nicely, “Though one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.” That quote is important to digest. Your future depends on more than you surviving the latest (or the next) change in life. It depends on your thriving – even flourishing.
If you are having difficulty believing this right in this moment, then try this exercise:
Phone or e-mail at least 3 friends or relatives. Ask them to share with you a change they have experienced in their lives that literally transformed their life in a positive way. They will be glad you asked and you will grow to appreciate the changes you are experiencing even more.
Perhaps the following bullet points will help reinforce what you’ve already learned:
Change is the normal process of life. Life is not possible without change.
It is human nature to resist change. Most of us like what is familiar and predictable even if it is harmful.
As normal as change is, it is normal to resist it. You are not wrong, bad, or stubborn simply because you resist change.
It is common to fear the unknown.
Change can cause us to question our long held beliefs and values and adjust accordingly.
Living in alignment with your values is a key indicator of success in overcoming addiction.
Moving through change can be uncomfortable and feel awkward, and is the only way to move forward.
Refusing to change does not mean that the world won’t change around you. Refusing to change means you’ll be left behind.
As harsh as this may sound, some of us resist change because we are lazy. We simply don’t want to invest our energy and time – we don’t want to commit to a new way of being.
And to end on a reassuring note, the ability to change, adapt and move forward often offers us new and wonderful opportunities beyond our imagination.
In the past, you may have slipped into your old habits and perhaps panicked, resisted the change, or stayed in denial. But now you are now equipped with new knowledge and new skills to help you not only accept the changes you experience, but to embrace them. When life throws you a curve ball, take time to review your newly discovered knowledge about the stages of change. You will discover that you will not only survive during challenging times, but you will thrive and learn to live and love truly addiction-free.