Four Levels of Change

personal growth

People are unique and strangely similar all at the same time. By this, I mean that although no two people are identical, the way that individuals handle certain aspects of life are very similar to other people. There seem to be patterns and clusters of ways people respond to life. I especially see this with personal growth.

Having been working with individuals and families since 2000 and in private practice since 2007, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how people respond to and live through life events. I’ve noticed that people are either givers or takers and that people either get better or bitter from significant stress.

It always fascinates me as to why someone can go through horrendous things yet come out of the experience as a vastly improved version of themselves. They shine from having walked through the desert. On the flip side, someone else goes through what would be perceived as less traumatic and they seem to have gained little to no personal growth from the experience. Why do some people pull themselves up by their boot straps and others lay down on the ground in defeat next to their boots? I think it has to do with the four levels of willingness to change that I’ve noticed in all people.

First Level: “Nothing is wrong with me.”

It’s exceptionally hard to change what we don’t see as an issue. People at this first level might come into counseling for just a few sessions because a loved one externally motivated them to or it was court ordered. These types of folks are a counseling nightmare. They have no true interest in changing much, if anything, about themselves. They might throw out a few things they could see that they need to work on but quickly rationalize away any need for personal growth. The extreme end of this level are the psycho/sociopaths and narcissists. They can’t change because they don’t authentically see anything in themselves to change. In their own minds, they are the personification of perfection. I know, it’s startling to think that people actually roam the earth with this much arrogance. But trust me, they are out there. A few have landed in my office, and heads up, I’m kindly blunt. At least with me, first level folks never stay in counseling long. They might stay slightly longer with a counselor who is willing to do their perfection dance with them, but eventually all counselors need to see actual growth. That’s when these first level folks tap out of counseling.

Second Level: “I know I have some issues, but I won’t actually do anything to fix them. Ever.”

These people are not necessarily narcissists, but rather see and talk about areas of change yet won’t actually do any work to change. You’ll hear them say things like, “I need therapy” and “I want to master my thoughts and actions better” but then also say, “I’m exceptionally lazy.” In their laziness or lack of motivation to improve their lives, second level individuals live the same way today as they did 10 years ago. The seasons change, the calendar changes, but second level folks do not. The saddest part is they know they need to improve their lot in life. They’re keenly aware, and at times painfully aware, that healthy steps are needed, but make no physical advancement towards doing anything about it. My heart goes out to the second level folks the most because it’s a lot like being in a cell with the door open. They just won’t stand up and start to walk out.

Third Level: “I’m going to see change in my life and I’m excited! Until it gets hard.”

Third level people are willing to invest their time and resources into counseling and will see aspects of growth, which can be very exciting. Unfortunately, this level is where some people retreat and return to the second level. No one said change was easy. Third level people often get hung up on fears, inconveniences and social pressures that tell them that change will cost them greatly in some area of life. For instance, I see clients who really want to improve their physical health and lose significant amounts of weight, but as they start walking towards their personal goal, people close to them start sabotaging their growth. The client has a dilemma to face and must decide to keep walking towards health or succumb and slip back into old habits. I also see this with those who want healthier relationships. They might be willing to make radical changes if the people around them don’t treat them better or engage in the relationship. Third level people see glimmers of personal growth but it doesn’t last. Weight may be lost but it’s put back on, and relationships don’t improve so they settle for the present or another version of throwing in the towel on reaching their hopes and dreams.

However, don’t lose hope yet. Some third level people do fluctuate from second to third and back to second but sometimes, they jump up to the fourth level!

Fourth Level: Lasting Change!!!

Now, this the level that as a therapist I see as the most rewarding. It’s where people go from the second level to the third, and then ultimately reach the fourth. If we look back on our own personal growth, we can see that we were probably at all the levels at some point, including the dreaded level one. We’ve all been in denial about ourselves and the need for change (first level), we’ve wanted change but didn’t make the effort to make it happen (second level), we’ve tried a few things to change but didn’t see it happen quick enough or gave up at some point (third level), but then we miraculously started over and eventually made it to the fourth level of seeing real, significant personal growth in ourselves. It’s so exciting when that happens! But believe me, it doesn’t come without a cost. All change requires us to give up things. It’s just a fact. Hopefully what we are gaining with reaching level four will be far more valuable than anything we’ve stuck out in the past.

Take some time and reflect on these four levels of personal growth. Be honest with yourself. Today, where are you? Are you happy with your level? If not, what are you planning to do about it? I truly believe in small, incremental steps toward reaching goals. Some of you know that my life story includes overcoming some major obstacles and I promise you that one step at a time truly does work. Today is a great day to get started towards your own hopes and dreams. I know you can do it if you want it bad enough!

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