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Are you afraid of change?

18 July 2013

Explore the six stages of change, learn how to deal with change effectively, and gain insights from the story of "Who Moved My Cheese" by Dr. Spencer Johnson.

“Once, long ago in a land far away, there lived four little characters who ran through a maze looking for cheese to nourish them and make them happy. Two were mice named “Sniff” and “Scurry” and two were little people - beings who were as small as mice but who looked and acted a lot like people today. Their names were “Hem” and “Haw”.

This is the beginning of a story in the book entitled “Who moved my cheese” written by Dr Spencer Johnson. The story is about change and describes how each of these four characters deals with it when faced with an identical situation. Here is the animated version of this short book.

Every day we are faced with challenges or opportunities that require us to change. There is the hassle of daily life, such as coping with traffic, working with deadlines or dealing with interpersonal conflict. Then there are changes, which involve breaking long-standing habits, such as smoking or poor weight control. And finally, there are major life cycle changes, such as leaving home, getting married, starting a family or a new career, and dealing with disability or death.

So how do you deal with change?

If you identified with Sniff and Scurry, you recognise change, put on your running shoes and start looking for new cheese. If you identified with Haw, you are certainly on the right track. But if you identified with Hem, and you, like many of us, find change anxiety provoking and difficult, it may help you to understand the process of change and adapt to it by matching the strategies for change to the stage that you are currently finding yourself in.

The six stages of change

Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross identified six stages of change and a number of change processes that have been found to help people move effectively from one stage to the next.

  1. Pre-contemplation stage

We deny that that we have a problem. In this stage we avoid getting information about the problem and we often blame others. In our story, Hem and Haw did not acknowledge that their amount of cheese had gradually become smaller. Day after day they faithfully returned to cheese section C, expecting that the cheese would magically reappear. Hem also clearly blamed others by asking over and over again: “Who moved my cheese?”

1.1 What can you do if you are stuck in the pre-contemplation phase?

  • Identify the defences that prevent you from acknowledging that you have problem (denial, blaming others, projection)

  • Get feedback from family, friends or colleagues about how your current behaviour when dealing with problems

  • Use self-reflection, talk to friends and families and read literature or watch films to identify, experience and express your emotions about the problem or challenge

  • Consider how changing and not changing will affect not only you but also those around you.

  1. Contemplation stage

We no longer deny that there is a problem, but we feel ambivalent about balancing the costs with the benefits of changing. This is often accompanied by a fear of change and the implications of giving up our familiar ways. In our story, Hem felt comfortable with what he knew (the maze), and he was afraid that it would be unsafe to go out into the maze again.

2.1 What can you do if you are stuck in the contemplation stage?

  • Compare your view of yourself with and without solving the problem and decide which view is more consistent with your core values

  • Explore the costs of not changing and the benefits of changing

  • Then define clear, unambiguous and measurable goals for problem resolution

  1. Planning stage

We make a commitment to change, as the pros outweigh the cons. In our story Haw finally laughs at himself when he realises that his fears are silly. He also realised that by remaining in his familiar territory he might die. Here, the pros certainly outweigh the cons.

3.1 What can you do if you are stuck in the planning stage?

  • Personalise the costs and benefits of the problem

  • Explore the costs and benefits of changing or maintaining the status quo

  • Acknowledge your resistance to change

  • Break big challenges into a number of smaller challenges

  • Make a declaration to family, friends and significant others that you are planning to make a change in your life

  1. Action stage

We change our behaviour by putting our plan into action. Haw finally let go of his fears and left cheese section C in search for new cheese. He imagined himself sitting in a large pile of the most delicious cheeses, and this image gave him the strength and belief to carry on searching. After a few stations, where he found only a few morsels, he finally discovered cheese station N, which was bigger than anything he had ever seen.

4.1 What can you do if you are stuck in the action stage?

  • Keep a diary where you record all triggers that result in negative beliefs, unconscious conflicts or negative behaviours

  • Initially, avoid all triggers for problem behaviour

  • Later, develop a tolerance for triggers by learning how to cope with increasingly stronger triggers

Challenge negative beliefs by generating alternative positive beliefs. Use for example the ABCDE model developed by Albert Ellis.

  • Break big, vague problems into smaller specific problems

  • Define these into solvable terms

  • Focus on the problem, not the person

  • Generate many possible solutions – examine the pros and cons of each

  • Select the best solution

  • Implement the solution

  • Review the progress

  • Repeat as necessary

  • Celebrate success (reward yourself)

  1. Maintenance

We take active steps to ensure that we don’t relapse into old habits. Haw regularly inspected cheese section N for any changes. He also decided to keep his running shoes close by, so that he could regularly go out into the maze looking for new cheese in new areas. 5.1 What can you do to avoid relapse? Anticipate situations where there will be the possibility for relapse into old behaviour. Develop step-by-step plans to delay relapse or avoid or escape from these situations.

  1. Termination

We experience no wish to relapse and we are confident that we can manage our difficulties. In our story, Haw reflects on his situation and realised that there is always new cheese out there, and that you get rewarded with it as soon as you go past your fears and enjoy the adventure. Unfortunately, for many challenges in life, we relapse into old behaviour, and we have to commit to a lifetime of maintenance. Be realistic; don’t expect to get it right the first time. You may have to go through the complete change process a number of times. The challenge may be more difficult than you had thought, or you may have used the wrong set of strategies to maintain the change. Remember the words of Arnold Bennett:

“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.”

This is part of the process. So, don’t give up, go out there, and in the words of Haw: “Move with the cheese and enjoy it!”

References and suggestions for further reading

Carr, A. ( 2005). Positive psychology. The science of happiness and human strengths. Hove, East Sussex. UK.: Routledge. Ellis, A. (1955). New approaches to psychotherapy techniques. Journal of clinical psychology. 11: 207-260. Hughes, M. (2006). Life’s 2% solution. (2006).Simple steps to achieve happiness and balance. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing Johnson, S. (1998). Who moved my cheese? An amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life. London, United Kingdom: Vermillon. Prochaska, J., Norcross, J., & DiClemente, C. (1994). Changing for good. A revolutionary six-stage program for overcoming bad habits and moving your life positively forward. New York, NY: Avon. Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York, NY: Pocket Books. Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight cc


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