Motivation and the Secret to Having It

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Motivation and the Secret to Having It

As a therapist working mostly with young adults, one of the most common concerns I hear among clients is feeling unmotivated. Whether it’s applying for a new job, writing a blog or a screenplay, losing weight, or beginning a meditation practice, clients often have an idea in mind of something they hope to accomplish, yet they feel stuck.

When I ask clients more about what gets in their way, they typically respond by saying something like, “Well I won’t be able to follow through.” “I never finish anything I start.” “I’m lazy” or “I’m unmotivated.” Hearing these comments made over and over again both in sessions and in my everyday life, I’ve come to realize that, like my clients, most people without training in cognitive behavioral therapy don’t understand the amount of damage these self-deprecating remarks have on their self-esteem and, paradoxically, on their ability to feel motivated and take action towards their goals. In a society that emphasizes being successful and doing everything we can to be the best version of ourselves, it’s a shame that we don’t receive education about how our thinking patterns, specifically our thoughts about ourselves, influence our ability to be successful and happy!

Throughout our lives many of us have come to believe the best strategy to motivate change is to be stricter on ourselves and push ourselves harder. The voice inside our heads says, “You aren’t doing enough!” – “work harder!” but our actions rarely seem to follow suit. Have you ever wondered why?

When we make negative comments about ourselves it demonstrates a pattern of thinking that is self-critical in nature and often distorted. Research has shown that self-criticism impedes goal progress due to its positive association with rumination (continuously thinking about various aspects of upsetting situations) and procrastination. On the other hand, self-compassion, an attitude that involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding and recognizing that making mistakes is part of being human, increases people’s motivation to improve themselves and their performances!

While exploring with my clients what gets in the way of them reaching their goals, I frequently hear, “I won’t be able to follow through” or “I never finish anything I start.” These thoughts represent three forms of cognitive distortions: fortune telling, overgeneralization, and labeling.

Fortune telling is when you predict a negative outcome without realistically considering the actual odds of that outcome or considering plausible alternatives. When you tell yourself that you won’t be able to finish a project before you start – and convince yourself this is the only possible outcome – you set yourself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy, since what’s the point of working towards something that you won’t finish? Essentially, you are giving up on yourself before you have even given yourself the chance to get started. No wonder you’re not motivated!

Overgeneralization occurs when we take one particular event and draw overarching conclusions about others, the world and ourselves. Overgeneralizations typically occur when we use words like “never” or “always,” such as “I never finish anything I start.” Maybe you have been struggling in recent months, or even years, with follow through, but it seems highly unlikely you have never finished anything you started! Overgeneralization is a detrimental thinking style because not only is it inaccurate, it is so powerful that it induces feelings of shame and hopelessness, which contribute to low motivation and difficulty changing behavior.

The third cognitive distortion I want to discuss is called labeling – an extreme form of overgeneralization in which we assign a name to a person (ex: lazy) based solely on one characteristic, behavior, or experience, while simultaneously ignoring all other characteristics or behaviors that contradict that label and make that person unique. Self-labeling by calling yourself “lazy” or “unmotivated” implies you have no choice in your behavior because it is at the core of who you are as a person, and therefore cannot change. This is inaccurate since as a human being, you are complex and dynamic in nature and as a result, you are constantly behaving in unpredictable, changing ways! Although all humans have the capacity to change behavior, self-labeling decreases the chances of change taking place since you have come to believe change is not a foreseeable possibility for you.

Self-critical distorted thoughts in the form of negative fortune telling, overgeneralization and labeling all trigger feelings of hopelessness, shame, and guilt. In an attempt to defend against these painful feelings that arise when thinking about taking action towards a goal, we become more likely to procrastinate and avoid the projects we say we want to accomplish! Avoidance (as seen through procrastination) becomes a way of protecting yourself from short-term failure and the self-critical thoughts that come with it. Unfortunately, the more we put off working towards our goals, the more frequent and intense these self-defeating thoughts and feelings become, exacerbating the cycle of negativity and unproductiveness!

So how do we break the cycle of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are not in line with how we want to see ourselves? What do we do if the strategy we all typically rely on – beating ourselves up in a spiral of hopelessness, avoidance, and guilt- is not as useful as we once believed?

Though seemingly counterintuitive, self-compassion and kindness seem to work!

Research indicates shifting from a self-critical to a self-compassionate perspective – for example, by writing a few sentences to yourself expressing kindness and understanding when thinking about a past experience that makes you feel guilty or regretful – enhances self-improvement motivation. Beyond expressing kindness and understanding to yourself in writing, another way to change from a self-critical perspective to a self-compassionate perspective is to become aware of your thinking patterns and cognitive distortions. Set aside time to critically examine and challenge those automatic thoughts. You might ask yourself:

Have there have been any times in my life when I finished something I had started?

What’s the evidence that fully supports this negative thought?

What evidence do I have that contradicts this negative thought?

Is there an alternative belief I could hold that is more realistic and kind to myself than my initial negative automatic thought?

What would my best friend say if they heard me speak this way about myself?

In answering these questions, you will most likely find your new responses are inevitably less punitive and more realistic than your original distorted thoughts.

If you can begin to catch yourself having negative automatic thoughts, through mindfulness and everyday practice, you will have an easier time shifting gears from a self-critical perspective to one that is more self-compassionate at times when you need a little encouragement and motivation. Feeling more optimistic about your accomplishments, you will find yourself becoming more confident in your abilities and more eager to take action towards change. This more realistic and positive state should help you get started on your goal, or get back on track if you’ve seemed to take a detour. Once you’ve overcome the initial inertia and momentum builds, motivation will continue to grow as you feel more productive and begin to see positive results.

Allison Lewin, LMSW
KIP Senior Fellow

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