Motivation Myths and the Truth about Change

January 30, 2015

going up steps

Motivation & Change, two words that are inextricably linked. Can you really make significant changes in behavior without motivation? Does it ever feel like you are really motivated to “do something” (stop using drugs, lose 10 pounds, change careers) but you just can’t seem to get started?

Sometimes change happens due to external factors which influence motivation (a sudden illness, a legal mandate). External motivators however are usually not that great at really shifting internal motivation which is what needs to be in place for change to be maintained over the long haul. And even very serious external motivators don’t always work (i.e., “I keep smoking even though I have a spot on my lung,” “I keep going to the bar at night to drink even though my wife says she is talking to a lawyer”).

We know from research and our experience with thousands of clients, change is most often supported by addressing motivation. Identifying it, engaging it, cultivating it, and maintaining it.

As you work to Identify, Engage, Cultivate and Maintain your own motivation, you should be aware of a few important “myths and truths”.

First, the myths:

  • Motivation is a permanent condition. You either have it or you don’t.
  • Motivation is an inherent personality trait…you are a motivated person or you are not (and being “an unmotivated” person usually includes descriptions like lazy, unfocused, drifting, uncaring).
  • Being motivated is an act of willpower and requires putting the blinders on and muscling through whatever comes your way.
  • Being motivated to change is something you can be bullied into.
  • Motivation is linked with morality. If you’re a decent person, when the situation calls for it you will change. If you don’t…you are weak, bad, incompetent, or uncaring.

Second, some crucial truths:

  • Motivation is almost constantly in flux. Having days where your motivation to keep going really drops are to be expected and are normal, not a sign of failure.
  • There are different levels of motivation and you can influence it in positive ways at each stage (your loved ones can be especially helpful in this regard!).
  • Staying motivated over the long haul of making real change is a skill. It’s something that can be learned and requires effort and practice.
  • Accepting the reality that “change is hard” is part of cultivating and maintaining motivation. The initial decision to change can often feel full of importance and be associated with positive feelings like hopefulness, desire, and even excitement (“everyone wants me to quit smoking, so I’m just going to do it!). The actual grind of making real change is more often than not quite hard and even emotionally painful (“I’m bored and lonely when I don’t go out drinking with the girls”, “I get really angry at my kids if I don’t have a cigarette before I try to put them to bed”).

When you look at these “truths” you might feel intimidated. Knowing that motivation is constantly in flux, is something you need to learn to maintain, and accepting change is difficult and maybe even emotionally painful? While many people think that if you talk about how hard it is to change, that people won’t want to change…the reality is, if people are allowed to talk about their ambivalence (which is totally normal given that making real life changes is hard!), they can go into the process with their eyes wide open, and thus more prepared. They can anticipate and plan for challenges. They can mourn the loss of the status quo (even if it looks really messy to an outside observer). They can talk about their fear of the future.

Maintaining Motivation

In order to stay motivated, it is best to really work on accepting that change is a process. Just like you don’t gain 30 pounds in a week, you won’t lose 30 pounds in a month (without some other potentially serious consequences). Change takes time and returns to old behavior are the norm. It’s all part of learning.

Unfortunately, many people (addiction treatment providers, family members, people struggling to make changes) feel that slips (returns to old behaviors) are a sign of low motivation (a personality trait, as a character defect, as a reflection of their moral compass). In other words, many people think that if you return to an old behavioral habit then it is a sign that you are “unmotivated”, “not ready”, “in denial”.

The reality is, a significant portion of the time slips are an example of a skills deficit. I “don’t know how to do this”…so “I’m going to go back to what I know is comfortable”. Slips are often a sign that the person trying to change has run into unanticipated obstacles, and does not know how to cope. If you find yourself meeting slips with anger, despair, or pessimism…try to slow down and reflect on the events, feelings, and thoughts that preceded the slip. Is there something about the change process that you did not anticipate? Something you did not know how to handle? Was your motivation to keep changing shakier than you were aware of and can you identify what was knocking you off course?

Slips require self reflection and a return to planning for next steps with hopefully increased awareness. And making changes over the long haul requires a fine tuned attention to your internal motivation. What are the variables (people, places, things, feelings, situations) that increase your desire to make changes? and what are the variables that pull you back to the old behaviors or cause your motivation to lag?

Whatever you do, try not to respond to a shift in your motivation as simply a sign that you are “unmotivated”…it is almost never that simple.

Doing the work to understand what is happening to your motivation will go a long ways toward helping your decide how to keep it steady and stable.

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