There is an old joke that asks, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?”
Answer: “Only one, but it has to want to change.”
Of course, changing ourselves is usually a lot harder than changing a light bulb. As a mental health professional, I have come across many different self-help books that were supposed to be life-altering. Clients and colleagues alike have often come to me saying, “you have to read this,” or “this book changed my life.”
Much of the time, however, the books they talk up offer a few helpful pieces of advice or interesting bits of personal philosophies, but not much more. I have rarely read one that I truly felt could bring real, meaningful change into a person’s life. But despite my wariness of the self-help genre, I found John C. Norcross’s Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions to be one such book.
One of the differences between this and other self-help texts is that it not merely based on theory or some feel-good ideology. Norcross, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology and psychiatry, based Changeology on years of research that looked at what makes people change their behavior, as well as his own clinical experience. As a practitioner myself, I can actually get behind his findings.
The research, he tells us, shows that there are five distinct stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. But as the author notes, most people are not overly concerned about which stage they might be in. Rather, he states, “people dedicated to change want to know what to do.” Norcross therefore uses these stages of change to determine the five steps a person should take to reach their goal. For each stage, he identifies corresponding types of actions.
The book gives encouragement to the reader, telling us that change is possible by reminding us that the author’s formula is based on more than 30 years of studies including thousands of individuals. It weaves in true-life stories, with examples of how others have used this five-step process to create their own changes. One feature I found helpful is the “Check Yourself” boxes that are interspersed within chapters. These mini-assessments help the reader determine their understanding of each topic and assist with measuring progress toward a goal.
While the first part of the book focuses on the science behind Changeology, it is the second part, “Becoming a Changeologist in 90 Days,” that contains the meat of the text. Here, Norcross explains the specific actions he recommends in order to enact change.
The author uses some examples of common ambitions, such as losing weight, to illustrate his process. Some readers might think, “I want to improve my life, but I am who I am.” But, Norcross show us, changes in our behavior are possible, if not inevitable. Who hasn’t looked back a few years and thought to him- or herself, “I can’t believe I actually did that?”
Norcross makes a point of addressing the questions and doubts that might arise during his process, and provides satisfying answers to those naysayers who think that change might not be possible. He also does an excellent job explaining each part of his technique. Every step is broken down so that the reader understands not only exactly what they need to do, but also the reason behind doing it. Norcross avoids psychological jargon, making the book easy to read. By the end, a reader can develop a well-defined goal, take deliberate action towards this goal, and also have a plan in place so that whatever change they have made will be long-lasting.
For those looking to make significant changes in their lives, Changeology provides a terrific outline. Of course, no self-help book, not even a good one, can be a substitute for professional therapy, and certain types of change may require more help (the author does provide resources for this in an appendix).
In addition, the book skips over the precontemplation stage of change, in which a person has no desire to alter a behavior. Norcross means instead to address those who already know they want to take action (quit cigarettes, for example) but may have difficulty doing so. So if you’re looking to convince a friend or family member that they need to change, but they don’t think they do, this isn’t the book for you.
However, for most of the kinds of change that people are already trying to make, Changeology will prove to be a wonderful source of assistance. It has an easy-to-follow formula based on credible research — and even this wary mental health practitioner found it helpful.
Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions
Simon & Schuster, December, 2012
Hardcover, 272 pages