The Despair of No Progress

A client – I will call them Lee – was telling me about how bad their weekend was, with a negative family interaction prompting a negative personal reaction to it. I am being purposefully vague about the details because not only don’t they matter per se, but confidentiality.
Anyhow Lee felt they had made no progress because here they are, right back in the slump, having to start all over again. Lee felt that everything was bad, bad, bad. They listed their faults in great detail, lamenting that they would never improve.
I listened for a while and then asked if this is how they would have responded to the crisis 6 months ago. Lee started to say yes, hence their slump … when they paused, and admitted that a number of things had gone different this time over previous. I asked what those differences were and my client began to list quite a few. I asked why they were different and Lee admitted that they had made different choices because of the therapy opening up different options, that they were able to see some of the patterns as they evolved and paused long enough to not react, but rather act.
So, not the same slump?
It just felt that way at the time, because of that similar negative reaction. Even here, though, Lee admitted it wasn’t as bad, and lasted nowhere near as long. So even this was different.
I drew a diagram on the whiteboard (I use a lot of visual diagrams) of a valley going up a hill, then a small dip in the hill and up again, to another dip, before finally peaking at the top of the hill.
I pointed out that 6 months ago they were in the valley, now they are in the first dip. From the bottom of the dip, it looks like a valley, but when we pause to look at that bottom trough and compare it to before, it is quite different, despite looking and feeling the same at face value.
So be careful not to mistake feeling like you’ve made no progress for actually making no progress.

Anyway, I was looking at the board today before erasing it and thought I would share.

Goat jumping
Climb all the hills like a mountain goat


We make plans built on poor information and best guesses using techniques that are poorly streamlined and hopefully good enough to reach goals that we think might do. When we rigidly stick to these plans we are dooming ourselves to a poor outcome. Flexibility is the key to being able to evolve our dynamic plan as we go for better outcomes.

Bent pencil indicating flexibility
Making a dynamic plan by being a flexible person


First, recognise that there is a hell of a lot you don’t know.

It is okay to be ignorant – no one knows everything.

Ignorance comes in several flavours –

Known unknowns – what you do know that you don’t know. Often it is worth pursuing more information about these before making your plan. However sometimes the resources to do this are beyond your current ability, so make a good enough guess to get moving and update later as greater information becomes known. Check out the section below “Uncertainty”.

Unknown unknowns – what you don’t know that you don’t know. This is much harder as there will become holes in your plan and knowledge that you become aware of later. If you weren’t prepared for the likelihood that there were unknown unknowns this hole may blindside you, taking you longer to recover and adapt.

Knowing that you are ignorant is a first step to allowing new information in. Denial of one’s own ignorance is a quick way to keep bullying ahead into disaster.


Next, accept that most of what you do know you will find out later is wrong.

Some of this error will be 100% wrong. We thought black was white and white was black. Most of the time the error will be only partial – it turns out what we thought was black was mostly just dark grey.

Complete errors will usually require a larger update to the plan, while partial errors will require a smaller adaptation.


We can identify things that we have a high confidence is correct and things that we have a lower confidence with. Using this, we can begin to construct our plan, leaning mostly on the things we are more confident with. Critical phases of the plan need to have confidence, so that may require investigating low confidence things in critical places to gain more knowledge and certainty.

It is inevitable that you cannot know all the things you need to know to make a concrete and perfect plan. Accept the uncertainty of what you know and make a plan anyway.

Making a dynamic plan

As you travel along your plan you will learn more about your situation, gain resources and find holes in your plan that you didn’t and couldn’t account for. Being able to adjust the plan based on newer information is really powerful.

Concrete plans often end in failure, while dynamic plans often end in success. Being flexible allows you to change your plan without it being about you.

Do not be afraid to begin to plan, knowing that you don’t know. Just accept that the plan will change as you learn and experience more.

It is rocket science

The phrase “It ain’t rocket science” tries to make out that rocket science is hard – and for everyone who isn’t a rocket scientist it is. Rocket scientist don’t find rocket science hard. For those who find recovery easy, they don’t call it recovery, they call it getting on with life, while those who find it hard are clearly struggling to overcome something. It is very easy for someone who finds life easy to belittle someone who is struggling.

If you are finding life hard, consider what your obstacle is – it may be someone, a lack of some kind of resource, ignorance about how to solve a thing, something you fear or many other possibilities. Until you can identify what your obstacle is, you can’t solve it or find a way around it.

Your struggle is real. Those who try to shrug it off as nothing clearly are not experiencing what you are experiencing.

Moving through Recovery

In Mental Health, Recovery is the concept of reclaiming your life through an empowered journey  of self discovery and redefinition. Often with mental illness or distress, we can lose the active say in what happens to us and where we end up. Recovery helps us identify a set of goal posts on our way to our future self that guides our journey.

All people are on a life journey as all people grow and develop. People who have experienced mental ill health have usually stalled in the agency, the self decision, of their life journey. Instead of the life journey being a “choose your own adventure”, it has turned into a movie you are only watching and can’t stop.

It is time to choose a path, the default destiny or your own future. Recovery.
It is time to choose a path, the default destiny or your own future

The purpose of the Recovery concept is to bring that journey back into your own control. It is about moving on with your life. And for it to be *your* life, your actions toward recovery must be *your* actions, *your* plan, *your* recovery. That doesn’t mean you can’t get help along the way, but it does mean that other people can’t carry you.

It is commonly said that “the journey is more important than the destination”, and there certainly is an element of truth to this. The destination is a place that you would like to be at some point in your future, where place is not a geographical location, but rather a state of being. This being is made up of feelings, social contacts and safety.

It is easy to become lost the destination being the end. At what point in someone’s life do they become them? When they are born? When they become an adult? When buy their first house? People don’t actually reach a final point – they just keep growing and evolving. In a similar way, the “goal” that your recovery journey is heading to is not the end – it is just somewhere you’d like to get to in your life journey. It is the motivator for the changes you are about to do now.

Recovery focuses on where you are now, compares that to where you would like to be at some point in the future and how you are going to get there.

Last time we had a brief look at Risk Management. A decent journey includes risk. That doesn’t mean we should add danger to give the journey more meaning, it means that some dangers are going to exist regardless and we have to be aware and realistic about them. That shouldn’t immediately stop us from trying the journey, it just means we should factor managing those risks as part of our journey.

Recovery is not being stagnant. It is about making changes, it is about embracing those changes to move your life towards your goal. Recovery is about moving towards your goal.

For more, Wikipedia has a good introduction about the Recovery Approach.

Recovery includes going “backwards”

When attempting to recover your life, all your decisions should be based on “how will this improve my situation?” This can include a backwards step that helps leads to progress. Recovery includes going backwards.

Consider parking your car. If you come in wide, and can only go forwards, you will do your car harm.

Sometimes you have to go backwards and take another shot at it to safely go forwards.

Sometimes you need to think of trying another car park.

A good Recovery Plan includes Risk Management

A well planned recovery path includes risk management.

Mouse trap with cheese and "free cheese" sign - how will you manage risk? Risk management.
Goals and risk

First pick your goal. What does that outcome feel like? Do you like it? Is it really what you want? How far away is it? Check out more on Recovery [Link] to learn about choosing goals.

Once you have worked out your goal, it is time to identify the risks involved. While it is tempting to try to list every possibility, it is important not to get too bogged down on tiny details.

In risk management there are three important considerations.

  1. How likely is it to happen?
  2. How bad is the consequence?
  3. Is there something reasonable I can do about it?

The high the likelihood and the higher the consequence, the greater the risk needs managing. However it is important to identify risks that can actually be managed.

For example, a plane landing on the building I am in is possible, but very unlikely. The consequences would be very high – catastrophic would be a good description. There is nothing I can do about it.

How will you manage these risks to get your goal? We can affect the above questions in the following way:

  1. How likely is it to happen?
    What can I do to reduce the likelihood if this is high?
  2. How bad is the consequence?
    What can I do to reduce the severity of the consequence if it is high?
  3. Is there something reasonable I can do about it?
    What resources are needed to shift the likelihood and the consequence, and do I have them?

By having an identified goal we can begin to identify the risks involved in achieving this goal. By breaking down those risks into categories and into methods of management, we shift the focus from “it is too risky” to “how will I get what I want?”

This is a brief introduction to the concepts of risk management. For a more complete run down, check out the Wikipedia entry.