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Don't be anchored by inaction

August 1, 2008
by Lori Ashcraft, PhD and William A. Anthony, PhD
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Changing programs requires swimming against the tide

If you've been engaged in the process of changing your policies and practices to reflect recovery values, you know firsthand just how much commitment and determination it takes to navigate the choppy waters of change and reach the shores of recovery outcomes. We've had a lot of experience with this process ourselves, plus we've watched many others launch into these choppy waters. For most, this seems to be a “sink-swim” process of swimming enthusiastically ahead, sinking back into past unproductive practices, and then surfacing once again and splashing awkwardly toward the shore.

That “sinking feeling” often stems from a simple misunderstanding about the requirements for “transformation.” Transformation is not reformation. It's not just re-forming what exists. It's moving beyond; it's swimming with a different stroke in a different pond. What we see all too frequently are programs trying to re-form what they are already doing. This is like trying to swim while being weighted down, causing the sink-swim effect. It takes so much energy to rise to the surface each time that there aren't energy and enthusiasm left to move ahead.

Let Go of the Past

If this describes your experience, our first suggestion is to stop trying to bring the past into the future. It takes a lot of courage and determination to transform programs, since a lot of factors will pull you backward. But as far as we can tell, transformation is the only way to get to the other side.

You may need to give up some of your traditional practices in order to create new recovery-oriented programs. You may lose some staff members who are unwilling to change the way they work. But once you've let go of the past, you'll find it's much easier to move ahead without the extra weight and resistance.

Take Action

Once you've let go of the past, take action. This may sound like a no-brainer, but this seems to be the missing dynamic in nearly every change process. There is a lot of talking, plus meeting after meeting, but when it comes time for action, not much happens.

Role Model Recovery

We suggest that your entire program engage in the same process you've been asking of those who use your services. The process is pretty much the same:

  • Programs ask service users to let go of their past feelings of low self-confidence.

  • They ask them to become survivors instead of victims of their past.

  • They ask them to use their strengths to move into new territory and a fuller, richer life that reflects their life goals.

  • They ask them to own their power and to be self-determining.

While we're asking people to step up and take action, staff often wait for something to happen instead of taking action themselves. Staff can do a much better job of role modeling the courage and determination it takes to bring about transformation. No wonder service users haven't been inspired by the way we go about trying to transform our programs. In fact:

  • while we are asking them to “own” their power, we are giving ours away;

  • while we are asking them to not give up, we often have surrendered;

  • while we are asking them to take calculated risks and move out of their comfort zone, we have not modeled this;

  • while we are asking them to step into a new way of being, we have held tight to our old ways of doing business and offering services; and

  • when they don't recover, we say it's because of their illness, instead of taking responsibility for creating programs that will help them get better.

You may be thinking, “What happened to Bill and Lori? They are getting so worked up about this. I read this column to get a few more easy answers, but now they are being demanding and insistent!” Well, you're probably right. We are concerned that the recovery movement will lose ground and that we'll miss this window of opportunity to make real, positive changes. We think this is worth waking you up for, and encouraging you to move ahead, let go of old stuff, and take action to transform your services.

Overcome Roadblocks

Let's take a closer look at some of the roadblocks to action. When you hit one of these, “kick it up a notch” (as Emeril would say) instead of sinking into surrender. Note how similar these roadblocks are to what individuals go through when they begin their recovery journey.

The belief roadblock. The first step in most personal recovery experiences is believing that recovery can happen. When a person has been stuck in the “mental patient” role for a long time, and has internalized the helplessness and hopelessness of that position, it often is hard for him to believe that recovery is possible. This is true for program staff as well. When they've been stuck in old ways of doing things, it's not easy to let go of them and adapt to more effective ways of doing things. Individuals in recovery often have supports who can hold the hope for them until they can hold it for themselves. This can work for program staff as well: Recovering organizations can hold the hope for each other until each program believes that change is possible.

The planning roadblock. Most people in recovery benefit from making plans they can follow to guide them through the beginning stages. It's important that the plan be theirs, one they own and has meaning for them. This is true for organizations as well. The more employees buy into the change process, the more meaningful it will be, and the more momentum it will build to move the organization into action.