Friday, March 12, 2010

Living Under Threat

I made a discovery about myself and my motivations a few months ago in therapy, and I think I wrote about it at the time, but it's worth revisiting because I keep realizing it over and over and it's something I need to remember to apply. And that is that (a) I respond much more strongly to positive than to negative motivations, and yet (b) my natural instinct is to try to motivate myself negatively.

I don't remember, as a child, ever being given positive reasons to do anything. (I mean, of course I was given positive motivations for things that are intrinsically fun, like swimming or going to Disney World. I'm talking here about things one would not naturally want to do.) It was never, "Eat your vegetables so you'll grow big and strong," or, "Think how great you'll feel when your homework is all finished," or, "If you're an honest person then people will trust and respect you." The reason for doing something hard was always the avoidance of some negative outcome like not getting into a good program in school or being disbelieved or being one of those ridiculous children who will only eat hamburgers.

This strikes me now as a bit odd (although possibly not as odd as it actually is).

Last night, I needed to finish the homework for my Seminar class today. I really didn't want to - I wasn't looking forward to puzzling out the proofs I needed to write, and the class doesn't (generally) interest me that much. I really fought myself over it, but there was no way I could justify not turning it in. But I didn't want to do it. But if I didn't do it, then I wouldn't have it, and I'd have to do it later and apologize to Dr. Ruch again and feel bad about it.

Eventually I was able to cajole myself into doing the assignment, which turned out to be really easy once I was willing to put in the required organized effort. And once it was done, I felt amazing! I absolutely love the feeling of having a completed assignement ready to turn in. Also, the proofs turned out to be moderately fun. Overall it was terrifically satisfying and I was really high from it.

And that is how I should have motivated myself, not by pondering how screwed I would be if I didn't do it, and by convincing myself I had no choice (which is pretty much never true, and don't think I don't know it), but by thinking about how much I would enjoy having it done, and how good I would feel about finishing it on time and doing a good job on it. But that type of motivation doesn't often occur to me.

The thing is, after a lifetime of living under threats (my mom's, when I was a kid, and my own internal ones), I am not very responsive to them. Not that many horrible things have ever happened to me as a result of my actions (or inaction), so most of those past threats have turned out to be baloney. Other threats ("I need to lose weight or I'll die of diabetes") are either far in the future or so horrible that they cause me to avoid thinking about the topic at all.

And who wants to live a life of doing things just to avoid some bad outcome? I mean, seriously? I am a descendent of millions of generations of humans and other creatures who survived despite the perilous nature of living, and I live in the safest and happiest time of all (so far). It's no wonder I'm not that easily frightened.

For the most part, if my only motivations for doing something are negative, it better be pretty easy. Wearing a seat belt is a good example of something easy that we only do to avoid something bad. Everything else worth doing has some positive reason behind it - it's satisfying, or remunerative, or improves the quality of one's life in some other way.

So, to hell with threats. I am gonna MESS THESE THREATS UP. I call them out.


Sally said...

I remembered this post when I was reading about approach and avoidance goals in personality development today:

"Approach goals [which focus on pursuing a positive outcome], relative to avoidance goals [which focus on avoiding a negative outcome], were associated with elevated levels of self-reported extraversion [sociability but also agency/activity in personality psych] and a decrease in self-reported neuroticism [i.e. higher emotional stability] within-person over time" (Heller et al., 2009).

Tam said...

Very cool. I should read that.

Sally said...

There's a pretty big literature showing basically that approach goals are associated with good stuff and avoidance goals are associated with bad stuff. Reframing goals as approach rather than avoidance, as well as forming implementation intentions, is a frequently recommended strategy.

Tam said...

Good to know, and that makes sense (though not all things that make sense are true, of course). I really regret that everything was framed the other way for me as a kid.