The psychology of making changes

I can think of few things in the world more full of positive changes than the paleo movement.   Objectivity compels me to nitpick the movement and to do things like log onto paleo hacks and ask: “Are there any anti-paleo testimonials out there?”…and still come up with nothing.  Or at least very little, and nothing conclusive.  I just typed a few searches such as: “paleo sucks testimonial,” “tried paleo failed,” “didn’t like paleo,” and “fuck paleo” into my google search bar, and didn’t get any results, either.  It seems as though most failures with the paleo diet have to do with incomplete compliance, or not giving paleo guidelines enough time (though honestly you don’t need all that much) to work their magic.

But getting started can be a doozy.  Changes always are.  And even maintaining the diet, for people who have struggled psychologically with food and other lifestyle habits, is also a doozy.  DO NOT FEAR.  Psychologists have come to a pretty solid understanding of how people go about making big changes in their lives.  Each recommendation varies in specificity and number–for example, AA uses twelve steps, whereas Dr. Phil uses seven (which are you going to trust?)–but they are, in essence, the same.  An awareness of these steps can help us understand and better live our own journeys.

These steps were crafted and are today mostly used for overcoming addiction.  In the paleo movement, this is relevant for a variety of substances, including: foods we have conditioned responses to, caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners or carbohydrates.  However, it is helpful for a whole range of situations and problems, such that I consider them steps for “making changes” rather than just addictions.  Some things we might want to change: our diets, our sloth, control over our health, compulsive behaviors, negative thought patterns, and, in general, bad habits.  Always a grazer?  Never run out of excuses to avoid exercising?   Still counting calories and obsessively measuring your intake?  These problems, while not officially addictions, are still Monsters with a capital M, and it takes a very certain willpower and process to get over them.

They say the stages of change in overcoming substance addiction are:

1) Precontemplation: not yet acknowledging there is a problem

Remember a point in your life in which you swam in excuses?  Still think you might?  Denial is a mightily powerful demon.  Any human being can rationalize any situation, and it is so fucking hard to step back and be honest with ourselves.  But we must.  If we live in fear of the truth, we’ll never improve, and we’ll never feel at peace with ourselves.  I know that just about everyone in good health or even seeking good health has passed this stage, but it is easy to be here without knowing it, and it’s easy to slide back into it.

What’s the easiest explanation for your current predicament?  Is it that the combination of eating a tomato, an egg, and a slice of eggplant yesterday inflamed your gut, activated your immune system, and gave you acne? Or is it actually that you ate a whole block of cheese, but you just can’t admit it because you love. cheese. so. much?   Consistently feeling really tired in the mornings?  It’s probably your compulsive exercise habits, and not the fact that old Snoopy Snoop woke you up once in the middle of the night.

Look at everything in your life with an honest gaze.  There are other ways to live, but not if you want to optimize your physical and mental health.

2) Contemplation: acknowledging that there is a problem, but not yet ready or willing to make a change

Okay, so I know that being a vegetarian is unhealthy, but I am unwilling to start eating animals.  What do I do?  Do I ignore my failing health, or do I continually do research, look for ways to sustainably eat meat, try eating meat even though historically I haven’t liked it?  Push myself through that process?  Yes, you’ve got to.  The thing is–this is a very transitory stage.  I’m willing to bet that once we’re past denial, we might float here for a while, but facts are facts and we are inevitably pulled along to their logical conclusions.

3) Preparation/Determination: getting ready to change behavior

Go go go!  Get information.  Prepare thyself.  And most importantly, learn to embrace yourself.  Your addiction, your compulsions, your habits–they are an inherent part of you.  They always have been, and even when you are healed, they will continue to be.  This is a constant battle, but it gets easier over time.  Accept this stuff into your heart, and let it settle there peaceably, and move forward with a positive attitude.  Progress is made in increments, not in leaps, and your ability to have patience with yourself and with others is vital to your success.  Breathe. Love. Accept. Give yourself a hug.

4) Action/Willpower: changing behaviors

Kick into gear!  This is the beginning.  Don’t let it scare you, Just. Do. It.  Even if it’s something you’re unsure about– for example, the paleo diet!– give it your all.  If you half ass it, you’re not going to know what a miracle a real change can be.  Trust me, and trust yourself, and trust the information you’ve gathered.  Trust the process.  Don’t cut your calories to 800 because you think the paleo recommendations just won’t work.  Trust!  Do yourself a giant favor.  You’ve prepared yourself thoroughly.  You know the risks and the benefits and the rules and all of that.  Step into the ocean, and keep walking forward.  When the sandbar drops off, you’ll swim.  Water might get in your ears, and it might scare the shit out of you, but it’s not a shark.  You’re going to be okay.  Grab onto a life raft and keep on swimming.

5) Maintenance: maintaining the behavior change

It’s not always easy.   Not at all.  Real step backs will occur– your ears will fill up with water from time to time– but we can’t let the idea of sharks scare us away.  Swim swim swim!  You have a paleo community, you have your family, you have me! Rely on the information you’ve gathered and the people around you, and continue to forgive yourself for lapses.  You will find that, while difficulties occur, momentum is the name of the game.  Get a few hard won battles under your belt, and all the sudden you’re a veteran.  This is awesome.  And you can do it.

6) Relapse: returning to old behaviors and abandoning new changes

Yikes.  I’ve said it before.  The name of the game is momentum.  The other name is trust.  Just because you’ve relapsed doesn’t mean you’ve failed.  You’re wrestling with a Monster.  These things happen.  But did Odysseus give up when the cyclops had him in his grip?  Did Ron Weasley give up when the troll knocked Hermione unconscious?  Hell no.  They were heroes because they pressed on against doubt and failure, and what can we all aspire to be, but heroes of our own lives?


All this said, I am no psychologist.  I’ve only read some books, gotten a B+ in Intro Psychology, and spent a lot of time around people making (or not making) changes.  I really believe that these phenomena exist for everyone in various degrees, and I really do think that being aware of them helps push us in the right direction.  I suggest that you check out other resources online about making changes.  For example, I jest, but I also acknowledge that Dr. Phil has a pretty good set of recommendations.   He discusses acknowledging your purpose, thinking rational thoughts, using alternative coping skills, identifying danger zones, being accountable, having a support system, and rewarding yourself.  These are all incredibly important things, and I hope you pursue them, if you’re trying to jump start change in your life.

Good luck with your changes and your optimal health.  Make me a resource.  If you want.  Please.  I can hold you accountable to just about anything.

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02 2011

9 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    I definitely recognize those stages in my own paleo quest, in fact, quite clearly by timeline. I made excuses for a long time, and it’s interesting, because after a while you believe that those excuses that you made are real and binding. One big example for me was this excuse that I was “supposed” to be overweight. I have a morbidly obese father and grew up surrounded by his eating habits. But I recognized a couple of months ago that I could make a change, and that I wasn’t destined to be this way.

    I’d say I’m on step/phase 4.5 and loving it. 20 pounds down, only a handful of paleo breaking in the past two months. I’m excited for when I get to focus on maintaining my weight instead of just losing it!

  2. 2

    I definitely recognize these steps; especially the act of contemplating change, which was huge for me – just acknowledging that change might, maybe, PERHAPS be possible was critical for me to get to the point of determination. I don’t think that stage gets enough credit, on the whole. People think change like this is something you decide one day, and do the next, but I think it often evolves slowly over the course of months, or even years, most of the time.

    Enjoying following your blog. Great discussion, and you are incredibly inspiring! Thank you!

  3. Suze #

    I’ve always had an issue with Pasta, Bread, Rice and Potatoes and have generally removed them from my diet or would limit them to the weekends but still, I could not lose weight. Just one portion of the above would make me feel bloated and feel as though I was carrying a pasta baby belly or a rice baby belly for around circa 3 days and feeling concious of it and trying to hide it with loose clothes.
    I once read about the Paleo way of eating in an ex’s Men’s Health mag about a year ago and thought it seemed interesting but then completely forgot about it. Until now.
    I started the diet, after a recommendation from a friend, on Monday just passed. I’ve strictly followed it (bar a boiled sweet on Wednesday’s 15 min break at work as no money or food with me) and this morning (friday) I tentatively stepped on the scales and saw a 7lb loss in just 4 full days. I’m beyond gobsmacked that just by cutting out the above items and anything that even has a minute trace of those evil products in and all the other grain and wheat sundries, plus sugar, that I’ve lost that much in such a short period of time.
    This is something I’m sure I’ll be sticking to. And my belly is certainly less bloated. Happy days.

    • Amanda #

      Suze! I would do the same thing with my big, bloated belly! I would wear my workout clothes because my regular jeans and pants wouldn’t fit anymore. I’ve been grain free for 2 weeks now and I think I’ve lost 6lbs…? All I know is, I can button my jeans right after they come out of the dryer…that’s how I’m really measuring my progress. :)

      • pepper #

        Yes! I like the belt tightening, too. Mmmhmm. :)

    • pepper #

      Happy, happy days! Thank you for sharing, Sue– you really have no idea, you’ve made my day!

  4. Pamela S. #

    Relapse! Jesus Christ, I have never EVER thought how every single time I failed in my attempts to thin down and health up what I was really doing was relapsing. My mind is blown. Thankfully, it seems like I’m staying on the wagon this time.

    • pepper #

      glad to be of help, Pamela! Sometimes all it takes is for someone to vocalize an issue in a slightly different way. :)

  5. Suze #

    Just a little update from the UK, 3 weeks into this new way of eating and I’m now 13lbs lighter and a dress size smaller. In no way am I starving myself, in fact i generally eat 3 meals a day and rarely feel hungry. People keep asking what diet I’m following but I tell them I’m not, I’ve just cut certain foods from my diet. And, at Alison – I too use my non stretch jeans as a guide to whether I’ve lost anything, it’s bloody great!

    Thank you for this fantastic & fabulous blog Pepper, you are a god send!


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