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Stages of Change and Motivation

Stages of Change and MotivationIn my tutoring for SAT preparation, I have come across themes and variations on the essay questions. One of the most common SAT essay questions is the topic of change and motivation.

In one phrasing or another, the SAT asks if we believe that change can come from external sources or if true change comes only from within. Change, motivation, perception of reality — they are all cousins.

At my husband’s work as a milieu therapist at a psychiatric hospital, he evaluates patients on their “stage of change” in order to gauge their insight into their condition. The vast majority of the people he runs into are in “pre-contemplation;” they don’t know why they’re in the hospital at all.

They create wild confabulations about how the tortured cat deserved it, how they were framed, and how they’re being held against their will.

He has others, however, who are more reality-based in their world view, who might begin to understand that they need help. I’m no expert on the Stages of Change Model, but I do know that the staff, try as they might, cannot move a patient from “pre-contemplation” to “contemplation.” For all the delusional, psychotic, disorganized patients who hear voices, respond to those voices, and espouse rambling conspiracy theories about mind control, insistence on government manipulation, and fears of staff defecating in the pancake mix, nothing the staff can say will “convince” them otherwise. Much as it makes no difference to insist to someone with severe Alzheimer’s that the president is not Roosevelt (and to do it again every 2 minutes), it does little good to “correct” the continued delusions. Even as my husband might try to “reorient” his patients to “reality” (or however he perceives it), it is a futile exercise until they have a greater awareness of their own condition or the world around them.

When I was in 5th grade, first starting to play clarinet, I took great joy in playing and practicing. Practicing was genuinely motivating because my dad had dusted off his old clarinet to play duets. Two of my best friends also played clarinet, and we would have duetting sessions at each other’s houses while our parents visited, until our respective bedtimes. Playing was motivating, and while “practicing” as its own entity never quite caught on with me, music itself was enjoyable, and remained so throughout high school, where I was always able to find a clarinet or other woodwind buddy to duet with, sit next to, or compete against for solos.

When I started playing bassoon, I was more alone. I was the sole bassoonist in my school. My dad played bassoon, but we only had the one instrument, so we were duetting less often. In high school, my weekly lessons took me 90 miles away to the Twin Cities, where I took lessons with the venerable John Miller, of the Minnesota Orchestra. I was completely intimidated by his mansion-like home, with its posh appointments and antiques. I was completely in awe of his ability to effortlessly coax notes out of his instrument. If external motivation ever stood a chance, it was John Miller’s influence on my musicianship. Yet my willingness to practice my instrument was more out of fear of disappointing him or my parents. It was more out of shame that I would drive an hour and a half on a Saturday morning with nothing to show for myself.

As I continued to take lessons in college, my teacher came with a less impressive pedigree, but she was certainly skilled as a musician and an instructor. Yet the frequency of my practice sessions dwindled. I had excuses aplenty. I’d practice more if it weren’t too late, if the music building weren’t so far away, if the practice rooms weren’t all occupied. Out of guilt, I would rush to the music building the day before my lesson so I could honestly report to her the next day that yes, I had practiced this week. I am a terrible liar; I had to cover my bases. Midway through my sophomore year, she fired me from bassoon lessons. Though I didn’t then fully understand her reasoning for “flunking” me out of lessons, I think now she must have known my heart wasn’t in it. She quit me from what might have been my music major, yet it wasn’t as if my very soul was becoming loosed from its moorings. It didn’t come as a tremendous shock to hear someone else tell me I wasn’t putting in enough effort; I already knew it. After years of my half-assed practicing out of fear or guilt, she just finally called my bluff.

I struggled for years in college wondering why my “motivation” was so low. I have questioned why I procrastinate, why my mile-long to-do lists persist, why I just can’t keep up with all the things I want to do. I have written recently about seeing all my “want to’s,” “have to’s,” “ought to’s” on the other side of a glass wall, taunting me with their remote appeal. I am only now coming to realize that my longing to do them, my distress at not being able or willing to begin them, is my internal motivation.

For years I berated myself, “If you were only motivated enough, you’d get off your ass and do X.” Turns out that’s a false premise. If I feel bad about no longer playing any musical instrument, I must not confuse that guilt or regret of having disappointed my parents with a lack of motivation. If I feel bad about not being able to initiate something I do actually want to do, like invite our neighbors over, or plow through the pile of unfinished mending, that’s not about motivation. There’s something else there, either fear or anxiety, or some unknown, unexplored entity that is inhibiting my initiative. But not my motivation.

While many people insist it took an external act (seeing a loved one die from lung cancer, a health scare, a near collision with a tractor-trailer, breaking up with a long-time boyfriend) to effect change in their behavior or belief structure, I still come down squarely on the side of internal motivation being the only true impetus for change. It might take the loss of a family member to bring awareness of the impact of cigarette smoking, but it is the individual’s newly personal fear of dying or sickness that motivates them. No number of PSAs or billboards over I-95 or high school health class scare tactics managed to budge the smoker’s pack from his pocket. It was only the emotional reaction to watching a friend or family member die that was able to serve as a motivator, and moved the person into “contemplation.” External forces may alter the landscape violently, but when an external factor finally manages to break through, where others have failed, it is only because the person is at last ready to listen, understand, and begin to change from within.

Flickr photo by melissambwilkins.

Stages of Change and Motivation

Abi Nathan

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APA Reference
Nathan, A. (2018). Stages of Change and Motivation. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 Apr 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.