What REALLY motivates us? Like really?

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Don’t overcomplicate this stuff, guys. We do what we do primarily for two reasons: to gain reward or avoid punishment. 

There are therapists and self-help gurus out there who are going to try to convince you it’s more complicated than that. There’s one guy in particular who goes around claiming that “95% of what motivates us is driven by the unconscious mind” (the buffoon of whom I’m thinking even claims that psychology “PROVES” this to be true). 

First off, that’s not true, and it’s definitely not true that psychology “proves” any such thing. No two psychological theorists can really agree on what, exactly, the unconscious mind is or what it holds, thus it’s improbable that the field can definitely “prove” what goes on in there.

But more to the point: theories that grandly claim that we are motivated primarily by factors outside our awareness or control are simply wrong. Behavioral psychology put such theories to rest years ago by empirically demonstrating, over and over again, that humans behave in expectation of reward, or in fear of punishment. 

What does this mean for you? 

It’s good news, actually. 

When you’re repeatedly engaged in a behavior that is painful; that is self-defeating; that is, at first glance, inexplicable, keep in mind: the ONLY reason I’m engaging in this behavior is because, somehow, some way, my brain thinks it’s going to lead away from punishment or toward reinforcement. IF that were true…what might the “payoff” of this behavior be? 

When you’re procrastinating, keep in mind: the ONLY reason I’m avoiding this thing is because somehow, some way, my brain thinks that it will lead me TOWARD punishment or AWAY from reinforcement. IF that were true…what punishment might my brain be trying to protect me from? 

Behavior makes sense…when we view it through the lenses of reinforcement and punishment. 

It’s true that we’re sometimes not aware of exactly HOW our brain is doing the math on the reinforcement and punishment equation. Sometimes it’s not obvious how our brains figure that one behavior, which seems self-defeating, will lead us to pleasure or away from pain; and other times it’s not obvious how our brains figure that another behavior, which seems like something we “should” do but which we just can’t get ourselves to do, will lead us toward pain and away from pleasure. 

But because something isn’t obvious doesn’t make it “unconscious.” 

In my experience, most people who cling to the idea of major parts of our motivation residing in the “unconscious” usually have a product to sell you, that claims to make the unconscious conscious. 

For a tidy fee, there are MANY people who will happily claim to be able to dig into your “unconscious mind” and come up with what REALLY motivates you. 

But what if such a purchase wasn’t even necessary? 

What if you could figure out what motivates you by learning to ask a few fairly straightforward questions and develop maybe 10% more self-awareness than you currently have? 

Maybe I’m wrong, I suppose. Maybe there are these masses of emotional gunk in our unconscious minds that motivate us to do what we do. Maybe we do need complicated, expensive techniques and esoteric theories to figure it all out. 

That just hasn’t been my experience as a therapist. 

Most people procrastinate because they fear the pain (i.e., the punishment) that they think a behavior will entail. No more, no less. 

Most people who smoke cigarettes do so because they associate it with pleasure (i.e., reinforcement)…not to mention they associate quitting with pain (i.e., punishment). It really is that simple. 

Most people who know they need to end a bad relationship do so because the pain of staying in the relationship isn’t as bad as they imagine the pain of getting out of the relationship would be. 

Most people who overeat associate eating with more pleasure than pain. And the pain that overeating causes them tends to be less immediate and less important to them in the moment than the pleasure. 

Pain and pleasure. Reinforcement and punishment. Behavioral psychology. That’s really all we’re about. No need to overcomplicate it; no need to jump through esoteric hoops; no need to pay somebody thousands of dollars to dig around in your noggin. 

Therapy can help you develop the kind of self awareness you need to figure out HOW, exactly, your behaviors are setting you up for pain or trying to invite pleasure. Sometimes THAT task requires brutal self honesty…which, there’s no doubt about it, some people avoid because confronting certain facts can be painful. 

It’s really up to you. Figure out how to use reinforcement and punishment…or accept the fact that reinforcement and punishment will keep using you. 

And probably abusing you, too. 

 

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What those motivational memes DON’T tell you.

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Just because something is challenging, doesn’t mean it’s growth-enhancing. 

There’s this delusion many people interested in psychology, motivation, and self-help sometimes fall into, that holds that if something is challenging or outside our comfort zone, then that’s a good indication that that thing is growth-enhancing or healthy. 

You see it in quotes like “if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you,” and/or “outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens.” 

It’s true that growth-enhancing experiences do often challenge us. It’s also true that there is value to evaluating to what extent our comfort zone hold us back from seeing and being more. 

That said: hardship for the sake of hardship isn’t growth. 

Jumping out of our comfort zone jut for the sake of being uncomfortable isn’t growth. 

I know, I know, you’ve heard me talk about values and goals and again. I’m a broken record on this subject. But this is one broken record that you’ll want to keep on repeat until it sinks in: the extent to which any experience, challenging or not, comfortable or not, is valuable to us is the extent to which it is explicitly linked to our values and goals. 

There are PLENTY of experiences that are challenging that aren’t valuable to us, because they have nothing to do with our values or goals. 

There are PLENTY of experiences that will take us way, way outside our comfort zones, but they aren’t valuable to us, because they have nothing to do with our values and goals. 

Why does this matter? Because we only have so much time, energy, and focus in a day. 

There are infinite numbers of ways we can budget and spend or invest that time, energy and focus; but if we just run around chasing challenging or uncomfortable experiences simply because a motivational meme on the internet told us to, we’re very likely to burn out. 

Absolutely, challenge yourself. Absolutely, step out of your comfort zone. But do so for well-defined reasons— reasons that clearly link back to your values and goals. 

Our values and goals are who we are. 

They define whether we’re wasting our resources, or investing our resources. 

It’s virtually impossible to have high self-esteem, let alone to feel good about ourselves on a day to day basis, if we’re not connecting our daily behavior to our values and goals. 

Conversely, it’s almost impossible to have low self-esteem if we’re going to great lengths to explicitly, consciously link our daily focus and behavior to our values and goals. 

Being clear on our values and goals is more than an an abstract, big picture kind of concern. 

Being clear about our values and goals— and devoting time and thought to how we can chase them down in everyday life— has a direct and profound impact on our daily mood and emotional functioning. 

Why do some people neglect their values and goals every day? 

For one, some people get intimidated. Asking them to be clear about their values and goals, let alone to chase them down on a daily basis, is asking them to truly live with integrity and self-esteem. Some people aren’t quite ready for that. 

It sounds ridiculous to say, but many people have been conditioned to believe that they don’t “deserve” the opportunity to chase down their values and goals every day. 

They’ve been conditioned to believe that their values and goals “don’t count” as much as other peoples’. 

They’ve been taught that it’s selfish to spend the day pursuing their own values and goals as opposed to helping OTHER people achieve their own values and goals. 

Think about that for a second: is there anything that, by definition, makes someone ELSE’S values and goals more important or valid than yours? 

No. 

But in a world in which people have learned that “selfish” is the worst thing to be, they automatically assign their own priorities less weight than other peoples. 

Let me set the record straight: pursuing YOUR values and goals, and helping other people pursue THEIR values and goals, is not a zero sum game. I do it every day as a therapist. 

Moreover, if you’re living a life that affords you plenty of opportunities to pursue your own values and goals, your mood will be better, your self-esteem will be higher…both of which will render you even MORE useful to other people.

You can’t help somebody else if you’re suffering yourself. 

It’s not a bad thing to seek out challenge. Challenging experience do often change us. 

It’s not a bad thing to be real about the limits of your comfort zone. Your comfort zone absolutely prevents you from taking certain risks that could be growth-enhancing. 

But challenge and discomfort aren’t ends unto themselves. 

Use them in conjunction with the two most important tools you have for self-actualization: values and goals. 

 

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“You just want attention.”

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There’s nothing wrong with wanting attention. Most of us do. 

For that matter, most of us need attention. That’s why we’re hard-wired to form relationships with other human beings. We need others to pay attention to our needs, to consider them important, to really see us, to really hear and validate us. To consider US important. 

Visibility, validation, care…those are all forms of attention. They’re all things we need. They’re all things we seek, in various ways. 

All of us. No exceptions. 

Peoples’ need for attention takes many forms. My need for attention may look very different from your need for attention. 

We’re shaped, from a very early age, by the forms of attention we’re taught it’s “okay” to seek. 

We’re shamed, from a very early age, for seeking attention that we supposedly “shouldn’t” seek. 

Many of the dysfunctional behaviors of both children and adults are simply manifestations of the need for attention that’s being expressed in not-so-adaptive ways. 

When we’re taught that there’s something wrong with the need for attention— that we SHOULDN’T seek validation and visibility and comfort— we develop very conflicted feelings and behaviors around our inherent need for attention. 

When we develop the idea that it’s “wrong” to seek or need attention, we begin to question our worth as humans. Because our brains are not dumb; our brains can do the math and figure out that if we were inherently valuable, we would get the kind of attention we need without having to jump through hoops to get it. 

It’s okay to want attention. 

It’s okay to need attention. 

The trick is to find ways to get those wants and needs met that do not isolate us from others, that do not require us to “perform” in ways that feel inauthentic, that do not interfere with our ability to be close to others in functional, reciprocal relationships. 

It can be a tricky balancing act. But it can be done. 

Seeking healthy forms of attention for ourselves and giving attention to others is not a zero sum game. We CAN do both at the same time. 

In fact, in healthy relationships, giving and getting healthy attention are intricately connected. 

Black and white thinking can really wear down our ability to relate to others. 

When we get bogged down in black and white, zero sum thinking about our relationships, it becomes virtually impossible to be close to others in ways that get both our, and their, needs met. 

Getting our own needs met and contributing to others getting their needs met are NOT mutually exclusive projects. 

Sometimes when we’ve been starved for attention for years, when we’ve been shamed for wanting and needing and seeking attention the only ways we know how, we get so hungry and thirsty for attention that we lose sight of the fact that relationships are designed to be reciprocal. Healthy relationships are designed for EVERYONE to get their needs met. 

Being in relationships in which our need for healthy attention is neglected will narrow our perspective. We’ll begin to form beliefs about relationships that are incredibly one-sided. We begin to believe that relationships really are zero-sum games: that for one person to get their needs met, it means the other person in the relationship must suffer and do without. 

Make friends with your need for attention. 

Detoxify your need for attention. 

Realize that what you’ve been taught and conditioned about your need for attention is probably untrue— and that the shame you’ve probably experienced around your need for attention has probably led you to a negative relationship with the concept that is complicating and polluting your relationships. 

What forms of attention do you really want, right now? 

What forms of attention have you had to do without? 

What forms of attention do you really need? 

In order to form healthy self-esteem, our relationship with our need for attention— for visibility, for nurturance, for assurance of our basic importance and worth— needs to be at peace. 

You are important. 

You are valuable. 

You are worthy of healthy attention. 

Repeat as necessary. 

 

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Don’t waste your suffering.

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I can’t tell you all suffering has meaning. Because the truth is, I have no idea if it does or not. 

The question of existential “meaning” is quite above my pay grade as a psychologist. That’s for philosophers and metaphysicians and maybe theologians to figure out. 

As a psychologist, what I am interested in is peoples’ interpretation of and behavior around pain and suffering. I’m interested in how people get through suffering, and how they’re even sometimes able to transform suffering into something useful for their own lives and growth. 

In that context, I can tell you: suffering, while it’s never pleasant or fun by definition can be useful. 

That is to say: our suffering can be useful if we decide it is. 

Suffering is not something we wish on ourselves, and I’d recommend not wishing it on others either. It’s not an experience we seek out. But pain and suffering are universal experiences. 

Pain happens. 

No one lives life or escapes life without experiencing pain along the way. 

We may not necessarily invite it into our lives…but since it WILL be in our lives at some point, we can decide to use it. 

How can we “use” pain or suffering? 

Pain and suffering have things to teach us, if we’re up to listening to it. 

Pain and suffering can teach us things about how we handle adversity. 

They can teach us things about what we consider important. 

They can teach us things about what’s really important. 

Pain and suffering can teach us how important our own focus is in containing and directing our own experience. 

The thing is: if we’re going to take advantage of our suffering— if we’re not going to waste it— we need to make a conscious decision to not let our pain and suffering be for naught. 

Understand: this is not the same as glorifying pain and suffering. I’m not for that. 

There are people out there who consider the fact that they’ve suffered as some kind of badge of honor. I know of at least one self-help guru who constantly touts his “scars” as evidence of his expertise in “real life” experience. 

Having experienced pain and suffering doesn’t make you unique. It makes you human.

We don’t have to glorify pain in order to learn from it. 

We do, however, need to be open to allowing things to exist alongside pain in any given moment. 

When we experience pain, the temptation is to focus solely on the pain. Pain can sometimes be so intense that it seems difficult, if not impossible, to focus on anything besides the pain in any given moment. 

In order to learn or grow from pain, however, we need to be willing to take a step back from the sometimes excruciating experience of pain and look for what else is there. We need to be willing to observe what else is happening in that moment besides pain. 

It’s not always, or even usually, easy to do. 

As humans, our attention is usually drawn toward the strongest stimulus— which is usually the pain we’re in. 

But what else exists along with pain? What is separate from pain? 

Our reactions to pain are separate from the pain. 

Our emotions about pain are separate from the pain. 

Our interpretation of pain, the meaning we assign to the pain, are separate from the pain. 

Start getting used to stepping back and looking for these in moments of pain. 

It takes practice. 

It takes willingness to yank our attention away from the strongest stimulus in that moment. 

But it can be done. 

And once we start looking at what is happening in moments of pain beside and above and beyond the pain, and interesting thing happens: we begin to transcend the pain. 

The pain is no longer the most important thing happening in that moment. 

That moment starts to become open to learning and growing. 

Again, hear me clearly: I don’t think pain or suffering is an experience that should be sought out if we can reasonably avoid it. I’m not a pain freak. 

But I also believe that pain doesn’t have to be a meaningless experience, either. 

Even in moments of pain…we have choices. 

 

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How NOT to respond to fear.

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There are several ways to respond to fear, but the least effective, most troublesome way to respond to fear is to belittle it. 

We constantly see people belittle fear— both their own fears, and other peoples’ fears. 

Fear is an emotion we rarely like to feel, at least in uncontrolled settings. (In controlled settings, such as horror movies and roller coasters, many people paradoxically seek fear out.)

We associate fear with unpleasant physical and emotional sensations. When we’re not in control of the experience producing the fear, we’ll do almost anything we can to avoid feeling it. 

Our aversion to fear often leads us to be dismissive and condescending of this emotion. 

When we’re afraid, we tell ourselves to stop being silly— that there’s nothing to REALLY be afraid of. 

If you Google “fear quotes,” you’ll find dozens and dozens of quotes denying and disowning fear. 

When someone else articulates a fear that we don’t identify or empathize with, it’s often our impulse to mock and belittle that fear. “Aw, poor baby,” some people will dismissively respond to someone expressing fear about something we don’t think “should” be that big a deal. 

Why are we so disrespectful of fear? 

Fear, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. 

In fact, fear, in itself, serves a pretty important function in our lives. We wouldn’t be able to function well without a certain amount of fear. 

The trick is to not let the unpleasant physical and emotional sensations that accompany fear overwhelm us…and it is vitally important that we not belittle fear. 

Respecting fear— giving fear its due— doesn’t have to mean cowering to it or letting it “win.” 

The good news is, when we learn to respect fear, to give it its due, and to experience the physical and emotional sensations that accompany fear without freaking out…then we often lose our overwhelming aversion to fear. 

Fear becomes less of a big deal. Less something that needs to be avoided at all costs. 

When we learn to tolerate the physical and emotional sensations that accompany fear by utilizing our coping skills and tools, fear becomes just another emotional state that has useful information for us— no more, no less. 

What coping skills and tools are useful in the face of fear? 

One of the most important skills we can develop (in general, but also in handling fear specifically) is focus management. It is vitally important that we learn to direct the “feature” playing on the movie screen of our mind— the pictures we see, the dialogue we hear, the music that accompanies the show. 

Controlling our focus gets much easier with practice. When we learn to listen, really listen, to the voices in our heads, we realize we can actually have input into what those voices are saying. 

When we learn to pay attention to what images are flashing through our heads, we realize we can actually change those images by imagining a channel changer and visualizing those images changing with a simple “click, click.” 

When we learn to pay attention to the “score” of the “movie” playing in our heads, we realize that we can actually be our own psychological deejay and switch up the soundtrack. You know how easy it is to get a song “stuck” in your head? You can intentionally get a song “stuck” in your head of your choosing…with a little practice. 

Focus management is helpful because it both distracts us from the unpleasantness of fear, and it also helps us maintain perspective on the information fear is attempting to make us aware of. 

When we feel fear, it’s easy to think the world is ending…unless we’re practiced in managing our focus. When we manage our focus appropriately, we can catch and control that “THE WORLD IS ENDING!” panic, before it really gets rolling. 

The most important thing to remember, however, is that fear is not something to be minimized or belittled. 

When you belittle your own fear, you don’t reduce it. In fact, you kind of empower your fear to come roaring back with a vengeance to prove you wrong. 

When you belittle someone else’s fear you’re mocking them for having a normal human reaction. 

Give fear its due— your own and other peoples’. 

Only then can you begin constructively handling fear. 

 

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You don’t have to be “motivated” in order to do something. Just do it.

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You don’t have to be “motivated” in order to do something. You really don’t. 

Don’t get me wrong— it’s much easier to do something if we’re motivated to to do it. 

We’re generally much happier doing things if we’re motivated to do them. 

But it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary to be motivated or enthusiastic about it in order to just get it done. 

That said, a lot of people seem to have bought into the fallacy that we need to be “motivated” to do something in order to get it off our plate. They think we need to have “drive” to do it.

What these people are really saying is, if I don’t want to do it, if I don’t feel like it, if I’m not “motivated” to do it or experience “drive” to do it…that’s going to be my excuse not to do it. 

You can see the problem here— if we only did things we were “motivated” to do at the moment, then there is a large subset of things that wouldn’t get done at all. More specifically, there is a large subset of intermediate or steppingstone tasks that are the building blocks of our bigger goals that aren’t particularly “motivating.” 

Lots of people are motivated, in the abstract, to lose weight. They’re not particularly motivated to keep a food journal or undertake a new exercise program in the moment. 

Lots of people are motivated, in the abstract, to set goals. They’re not particularly motivated to define the daily tasks that need to get done en route to those goals. 

Lots of people are motivated, in the abstract, to develop expertise at a particular skill. They’re not particularly motivated to work, every day, at getting better at that skill. 

The good news is, the necessity of “motivation” is a myth. 

People do things they’re not “motivated” to do every day. 

People accomplish things they don’t experience particular “drive” toward, every day. 

They figure out a way to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize while getting through the momentary inconvenience of doing the intermediate thing they are unmotivated to do. 

What we have, then is essentially a problem to be solved. How do I harness the motivation I experience toward my larger goal, and keep that in the forefront of my mind as I hack away at this intermediate goal? 

How do I mentally kill time while I get this intermediate task off of my plate? 

How can I direct my focus such that the little, everyday tasks involved in this larger goal don’t defeat me? 

The answer lies in learning to control your focus. 

And controlling your focus is all about controlling what you say when you talk to yourself; what you see on the movie screen of your mind; and how you intentionally filter incoming data and stimuli. 

The real truth of the matter is, we’re doing this all the time already. We’re just not particularly aware of what we’re doing. 

Every day, we manage what we say to ourselves to produce certain states of focus, motivation, or un-motivation. The level of motivation you feel to do anything, right now? Is a direct result of what you say to yourself. 

Every day, we manage what we allow to be shown on the movie screens of our minds. The level of excitement or enthusiasm you feel to do anything, right now? Is a direct result of what you’re watching on the movie screen inside your head. 

You can take control of it. 

You can notice how you talk to yourself, what those voices in your head say. 

You can notice what’s on the movies screen inside your mind…and you can change it. 

It takes a little practice, is all. 

Think about this: you ALREADY do things you’re not terribly enthusiastic about or motivated to do. I guarantee that not everything you choose to do in a day, you’re terribly jazzed to do. You ALREADY know how to push through periods of low motivation and low enthusiasm. 

Your task now is to take this skill— which you already have— and apply it to the thing you’re supposedly not motivated to do…but which is attached to a larger goal that you ARE enthusiastic about. 

Not motivated to do the thing? 

Lost your “drive” to do it? 

Do it anyway. 

You know how. 

 

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Skills and tools beat “toughness” every. Single. Time.

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“Toughness” doesn’t mean much by itself. 

Some people are really enamored of the concept of being “tough.” They associate it with being durable, hard to take down. They consider it a virtue. 

Toughness may or may not be a virtue, I suppose. I’m not exactly sure what goes into making a “tough” person “tough”— how much of it has to do with genes, how much of it has to do with conditioning and environment, how much of it is a choice. I don’t know. 

I do know that “toughness,” as defined by most people, seems to be overrated as a prognosticator of success. 

You’re not going to get by on toughness. 

Toughness, on its own, is kind of useless without good planning; without organization; without tools and skills; without appropriate values and goals. 

Toughness, on its own, doesn’t get you very far— without the work. 

Yes, yes, I know. Work is a hassle. It’s more effort. It’s something else on your radar screen. I, for one, wish it wasn’t necessary to do all that planning and develop all that knowledge and all those skills in order to create a life worth living. 

But I’d rather accept the fact that we need to do the work, rather than get lost in some fantasy that a magical quality called “toughness” will get us by. 

Understand, it’s not your fault that you’ve been sold a bill of goods about “toughness.” 

Our culture is kind of enamored of “tough guys.” 

We like larger than life characters who are “badass.” 

We like leaders who “tell it like it is,” regardless of the consequences. 

We enjoy the fantasy of invulnerability that the concept of “toughness” embodies. 

More than anything, we like to think of ourselves as “tough.” After all, if we’re fundamentally “tough,” it doesn’t matter what else happens to us— we’ll be okay in the end, right? Because we’re so “tough?” 

It’s an alluring fantasy. But also a dangerous one. 

If we buy into the myth of “toughness” at the expense of developing our skills and tools and clarifying our values and goals, we really can lose days, weeks, months, and years spinning our wheels. Waiting for our “toughness” to bail us out. 

You may be “tough.” I’m not saying you’re not. 

I’m saying that “toughness” is only a starting point. 

If I need to bet on who will succeed, between the person who is “tough” and the person who understands how important it is to develop the knowledge and skills that will complement their toughness, I’ll bet on knowledge and skills every single time. 

Having to turn to skills and tools, instead of relying on fundamental toughness, isn’t weak. 

In fact, I guarantee that most of the people you think of as “tough,” either in your life or in popular culture, don’t really share many fundamental qualities…EXCEPT a willingness to access their skills and tools when they need to. 

Genuinely “tough” people aren’t conflicted about utilizing skills and tools. 

They accept using skills and tools as something that needs to happen, regardless of how they feel about it. 

Do you really want to develop “toughness” that actually means something? Toughness you can actually use? Toughness that will come in handy? 

Then get comfortable identifying and developing knowledge, skills, plans, and tools. 

Get used to getting over your own antipathy toward using skills and tools. 

Get used to getting out of your own way. 

You have the potential to be as “tough” as anyone you admire. As “tough” as anyone you’ve ever known— as long as you can give up your fantasy of “toughness” being a character trait that will solve all your problems without the use of skills and tools. 

Real toughness is adaptability. 

And adaptability is learned and practiced and conditioned. 

 

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