Self-Determination & Recovery

by: Jenn Cusick

The following segment is take from a peer support training I wrote for Alberta Health Services & BCSS Victoria.

(Please note that this material is copywrited. Please do not copy or use without author’s permission.)

The Seed of Self-Determination

Spring holds such promise. Such hope. When the first buds appear on the trees, and the tulips begin popping out of the ground, we are assured that winter didn’t ravish nature the way it appeared to our bare eyes–though it really felt derelict in the thick of the cold. Sometimes during a particularly rough winter we can find ourselves questioning whether spring will ever come again. We wonder if we are cursed to be surrounded by dead wilted bushes, bare trees that look like skeletons of their former selves, and mounds of dirty snow piled up everywhere. It feels like the lush green of the oak tree is something that will just have to live on in our memory.  

Yet, under the soil life continues. Microscopically there is a whole world under the dirt, protecting the trees and preparing for spring.  

Then…as always, sometime in the spring the temperature begins to rise. The little buds turn into flowers, and soon big luscious green leaves fill up the branches of trees. Gardens flourish and we gather golden flowers to display on our kitchen tables, we run barefoot in the dewy grass, we pick delicious blueberries for pie, and we pull fresh juicy wobbly carrots from the ground to snack on.

Winter always becomes spring.


Each plant innately responds to the conditions of their environment. Its desire to live, grow, and flourish is powerful. The plant’s purpose and story was embedded right in that tiny seed, and its story began to unfold the day it was planted into the soil.

We look to nature as an allegory for the strength of the human spirit.

Human beings are born with powerful innate strength and a strong desire to flourish. We each have deep-seated potential within us to move towards growth and expansion.

However, like an oak tree, a blueberry bush, or even a houseplant–our environment matters greatly. If we are enveloped in an environment that supports our innate desire to flourish, and that environment creates space for our inner wisdom and true self to show up, then we will actualize our inherent potential. If we are not in a supportive environment, we will stay stuck. We will hibernate until conditions improve. As you know, we humans can remain stuck in the dreariness of winter for a long, long time.  

Self-determination is that innate desire to flourish.
It is embedded within each human being.

*The above is an excerpt from “Foundations of Support–A Peer Perspective”

As practitioners, we are tasked with the role of creating the environment that supports people’s self-determination.

Recently I have heard some comments from family members and clinicians questioning the push of recovery-oriented service systems towards greater self-determination, especially with those who are deemed very ill.

As you likely know, self-determination is #7 in the PSR Canada Core Principles and Values.

this one Self-Determination #7.png

Self-determination should always be integral to the way we serve anyone. It might look different depending on how someone is doing, but it should always be present. It is an essential part of being human.

I thought I would share some information about self-determination theory, and how we can apply this theory towards our work.

The following is also adapted from the Foundations of Support training
(by Jenn Cusick).

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory is a motivation theory developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the 1980s. The theory is well recognized, and well studied. It explains how human motivation works.

They explain that there are two types of motivation:

Extrinsic Motivation: When someone is motivated by something outside of themselves. Extrinsic motivation comes in the form of a reward like a prize, wealth, acknowledgement, good grades, fame, and success. Punishment or discipline can also be extrinsic motivators.

When individuals are strongly extrinsically oriented, they lack a firm foundation for well-being.
— Edward Deci

Intrinsic Motivation: This is internal motivation. Motivation is born out of interests, beliefs and values, pleasure of learning and gaining knowledge, feeling effective, enjoyment, and life satisfaction.

In self-determination theory intrinsic motivation is what we strive for. It’s about self-empowerment and being active and in control of our own lives.


Have you ever said, or heard someone say, “how can I motivate that person?”

The answer is that you cannot ever motivate anyone.

Anything you can do is rooted in extrinsic motivation–basically offering a reward or a punishment, and that doesn’t support self-determination or real deep-seated change.

All intrinsic motivation HAS to come from within, or it just doesn’t stick.

However as practitioners, we are essentially facilitators of self-determination.

We CAN create an environment that supports the growth of intrinsic motivation.

The Self-Determination theory says that humans have three basic needs–Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. In other words, we need to have mastery and skills, autonomy, and connection.

Self-determination theory.png

The Environment

As practitioners, we need to be very intentional about the environment we create that supports someone’s self-determination.

Regardless of how “well” we perceive someone to be…we need to ask ourselves these important questions when we are supporting someone else’s self-determination:

  • Does this person have regular opportunities to learn and grow?

  • Does this person have opportunity to gain mastery of a skill or hobby?

  • How much control does this person have around their living space, the food they eat, and even what they wear?

  • Is this person in charge of making their own goals, or are we supporters creating their goals for them?

  • If as staff we are creating their goals, what can we do to shift that and encourage self-determination and growth of intrinsic motivation? How do we create space for exploring desires, interests, and goals so that they can figure out small or big goals for their life? This takes time. It means that as practitioners, we cannot create someone else’s goals, even if we think we know best. We know that having a sense of purpose and meaning making are essential elements of human growth and development.

  • How do we create more opportunity for choice? (Depending on how well someone is doing, choice might be simple things like what activities to participate in, options for snacks, what to wear, or purchase…For someone else these could be big choices like what kind of service they want to receive, what to study & learn, and where to live.

  • Does this person have autonomy over aspects of their life? If not enough, how can we change that as a system.

  • Does this person have a community, friends, or people they can just feel comfortable with?

  • If not, what can we do to create more of that kind of environment? How can we encourage community inclusion and belonging for the people we support?

  • Is everything about this person’s life about the support they are RECEIVING, or do they have opportunity to GIVE as well? We all need to give as well as receive to feel whole.

  • Am I able to detach from the need to see a specific outcome, so that this person can flourish in the path they are meant to go in…rather than me directing their path?

  • Am I able to avoid giving advice, and instead ask powerful questions so that the person can learn to develop their resilience, and trust their inner teacher?

To Sum Up

This is clearly a huge topic, and we can spend days and days talking about the nuances of facilitating self-determination, and creating environments that support intrinsic motivation.

We will continue this topic in another post, and perhaps offer a bit more to our members. We are in the midst of creating a members page.

If you want to learn more about becoming a PSR Canada member, you can learn more here.

We will end with a quote from Parker J. Palmer. He is a teacher and author who writes about wholeness, and creating safe environments that allow the soul to show up. I strongly recommend his book “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life.”

Much of what Parker J. Palmer talks about is key in creating safety, and supporting other people’s self-determination. When we aren’t intentional about creating a safe environment that encourages choice and intrinsic motivation, we can unconsciously hurt or shut down the people we support.

Supporting self-determination means that we have to soften our approach, and create a sense of safety so that people feel comfortable showing up.

“The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”
— Parker J. Palmer