Emotional Stages of Change

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Whether learning to play an instrument, ride a bike, or make changes in an organization like changing leadership or launching a new program, effective change involves thought and emotion. This cycle of emotional change also informs the personal and challenging changes we undertake to redirect the destination of our mental health. Understanding the emotional cycle of change helps us normalize the range of emotions that occurs and keeps us on track and heading toward our goal. A model of emotional change adapted from Psychologists Don Kelley and Daryl Connor gives us a framework by which to examine our emotions around change. This adaptation is from the book, The 12 Week Year by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington.

The framework has five stages: Uniformed Optimism, Informed Pessimism, The Valley of Despair, Informed Optimism, and Success & Fulfillment. Having an awareness of where we fall emotionally while navigating voluntary change can help us see change through to completion.

Uninformed Optimism

Uniformed optimism is an exciting stage. You brainstorm and strategize for the future, outlining all the benefits without having experienced any of the costs. The future looks bright and optimism soars. 

Informed Pessimism

 As you begin to discover the reality of what it takes to change, positive emotions can begin to disintegrate, and pessimism may start to set in. People may question whether the cost of change is really worth the effort when they see the hard work it will require. Some may look for reasons to abandon the effort. 

At this pivotal moment, there can be a pause for reflection, not based on emotions, but on an investigation to understand if this is the right change at the right time. There are situations when it is best to either abandon the change, wait for a better time, or shift directions. This is okay. Once clarification has been reached that this is a worthwhile change, it will fortify the mind for what’s next in the emotional stages of change.

 1. Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington: The 12 Week Year copyright 2013, John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Valley of Despair or Hopeful Realism

Originally Kelley and Conner called stage three hopeful realism. In their adaptation of this model of emotional change, Moran and Lennington coined the term valley of despair. Whatever you want to call it, the valley of despair is rock bottom. This is a turning point of quitting or pushing through. 

The lowest point of the emotional cycle of change is the valley of despair. This is where many people give up. Change is painful and challenging. The benefits seem just out of reach. The fastest way to end the felt discomfort is to quit and go back to the way things were before. If you quit here, you end up back at stage one and have to start all over again. 

By reframing our thoughts at this stage, we can choose to move into hopeful realism. This is where you push past doubt. You may still feel anxious, but you continue focusing on problem-solving and overcoming obstacles. Because you’re now more familiar with your situation, you take a step back and think of potential options to push through difficulties. This is where you refine action plans and recruit support to keep on top of tasks. This is not a stage to face alone. Identify who can help you to cross the finish line.

Informed Optimism

In this stage, the possibility of success increases, and your positive emotions start to resurface. The cost of change is starting to feel worth it, and you’re confident you’ve made the right choice. The key is to push through to completion and not stop the momentum. 

Success and Fulfillment

The final stage of the emotional cycle of change is success and fulfillment. The cost of change is now perceived as worth it. The obstacles that seemed insurmountable are now in the rearview mirror. You’re now in a place of more experience and may be in a position to mentor someone else starting out in the emotional cycle of change. 

Before moving on to your next goal or project, celebrate your success and the team who supported you during this change process. Take time to reflect on what went well and what you and your team learned. This review will boost your confidence and sharpen your skills for when you chose to embark on the next journey of change and achievement – personal or professional. 

emotional stages of change infographic BMW