All of us, to some degree, have something we want to change in our lives. Some of us have more to change than others. And some of us have more wherewithal to make changes than others. For anyone who truly feels stuck, who lacks motivation, or who honestly doesn't see a way out, here's an adage to take to heart: "The anticipation of change is worse than actually undergoing change."
I should know. I am the poster child for turning around a ravaged life. I spent more than three decades as a hot-tempered smart aleck and an emotionally buried zombie. I worked underground in the mines of Northern Ontario and went through my own personal cave in with alcoholism that nearly buried me alive. If I can transform my life, anyone can. There's a lot I can tell you about change.
Health experts have spent decades trying to discover what motivates people to change from their unhealthy habits to healthy ones. While they haven't found a single solution, they have pinpointed that fear or guilt are the least effective motivators to get people to change. Instead, when someone becomes motivated to change on their own, they're more likely to see lasting results.
A well-recognized model that counselors and health professionals first developed in working with alcoholics is now used widely in promoting behavior changes. Called the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), it approaches change as a process, not an event. TTM recognizes that quitting habits like drinking, smoking, or overeating happens in stages.
In order to change, according to TTM, a person moves through these five stages:
1. Precontemplation (no intention of changing)
2. Contemplation (getting ready)
3. Preparation (ready)
4. Action (reduction in behavior)
5. Maintenance (confident in continuing new behavior)
I wasn't aware of the TTM process when I was clawing my way out of my own dark hole. But now I can relate to the stages it describes.
Precontemplation: In my precontemplation stage, drinking was my release from all the problems I felt had buried me alive -- an abusive childhood, lack of self-esteem, and a family life that had deteriorated to nothing. I spent my days digging in a deep, dark underworld, and nights and weekends diving deep into an alcoholic stupor. In 17 years, I was only alcohol-free during six days when I was hospitalized with a broken leg. I couldn't conceive of a day without drinking myself into oblivion.
Contemplation: It wasn't that I didn't contemplate giving up drinking. Eventually, alcohol no longer relieved my guilt and remorse. I tried to contemplate giving it up, but I just didn't know who I'd become if I wasn't drinking.
Preparation: I wasn't mentally prepared to get sober, but I came to a moment when, physically, I could no longer tolerate the booze. I'd progressed to regular black outs, but one day my body said, "Enough!" I couldn't take a sip without throwing it up.
Action: Action began when I turned to my union's Employee Assistance Program (the United Steelworker EAP). They helped me get into AA, and some weeks later, into rehab. They treated me as a person with a problem, not a problem person, and really went the extra mile. Essentially, they saved my life. The process of getting sober required more intense digging than anything I'd ever done underground. Traveling the 18 inches from my head to my heart was the hardest journey I've undertaken. But with each step, the way became more clear.
Maintenance: For me, maintenance has been a succession of new opportunities to move on from my past. I found that once I made the effort to change, help magically appeared. My EAP asked me to talk to other miners about their services, which led to training opportunities and seminars, and eventually led to earning college and graduate degrees. Today, I'm an author, a motivational speaker, and head of the Emergency Response Team for the Union of International Steelworkers. I strive each day to be a dealer of hope.
These are my messages of hope for anyone at a crossroads wanting to make a change in their lives:
1. Be ready for opportunities. Keep an open mind and recognize them when they come. When you take time to know yourself and know what you're after, watch for opportunities to present themselves while you take steps to get there. They tend to present themselves when you'd least expect them.
2. Don't shut out the past. Take the lessons you've gained and use them as a launching board. Treat the past as a rearview mirror and the future as your windshield.
3. Know that change takes time. Don't get caught up in the instant gratification attitude that permeates our society. Instantaneous change is unrealistic. Let the accumulation of small successes add up eventually to a huge success.
4. Accept help. I accepted early on that I only know what I know, and I need to surround myself with people who know more than me. As my mentor, Les Brown, a motivational speaker, says: "If you think you're the smartest person in the group, get a new group."
5. Learn the value of being other-centered. I spent so many years of my life being self-centered that I closed myself off from the world around me. Now I've learned the difference between being childish and childlike--and it's given me a new enthusiasm for life and all its possibilities.
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