Moving from Dread to Motivation

By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

So many of us are looking for more ways to be motivated.  Maybe we don’t feel like he have our act together. Maybe we aren’t getting to the gym enough or cut out a certain behavior that we don’t want anymore.  We want motivation because it is the mysterious substance that can help us achieve our goals. But like the mystical Holy Grail, we are not too sure how to find it.  

George was getting ready for a big presentation at work, but he was stressed.  He had to make a good impression on his superiors to get them on board with his idea.  George never felt he was good at public speaking, and especially anxious when the pressure was on like this.  He worried he will miss one of his transitions or not be taken seriously. And what if people laughed at his ideas?  George spent a lot of time wishing he was good at public speaking.

Julie really wants to try out improv comedy.  She sees on ad on the train to try it out and it is reasonably priced.  There is even a free intro workshop coming up soon. This looks like an excellent opportunity for her.  But she feels really nervous when she thinks about going. She can’t imagine herself being very good and she imagines that there might be some really talented people who would notice that she isn’t very funny or creative.  While the opportunity looks good she doesn’t have the motivation to attend.

Tyler spends a lot of the day thinking about applying for a new job.  They don’t like their current position at the agency and something new sounds like a nice fresh start.  However Tyler never pursues any opportunities they see. Tyler would normally just say that they just don’t have that much motivation.  The same goes for Tyler and dating. They will think about dating or looking up some of the apps or maybe going to a mixer, but it doesn’t seem worth it.  They will just not find anyone so why bother.

We all have skills, wishes, and desires we would love to pursue but often don’t seem to go after them.  We also all have hurdles that block our ways in achieving the things we want. These hurdles can take on various forms.  They can look like “I’m not good enough,” “But what if I fail?” or “You don’t want to prove to others that you failed/aren’t good enough.”  

We occasionally have the tendency to foresee the worst case scenarios of things not working or the worst case scenarios.  This causes dread, or something that decreases our motivation. I hear so many people say things like “I must not want it enough” or “I just need more will power,” but these people do want their goals and probably do have the ability to build skills to obtain them.  You do too. But dread has a tendency to want to keep ourselves safe from failing.

I once went ice skating with a dear friend of mine.  She hadn’t had much experience skating, but she really liked the idea of skating growing up and was excited to give it a try.  As we had prepped, a couple of children were also putting on their skates and were talking about their excitement of skating for the first time.  When we got on the ice we were slow to adjust to the slippery surface and balancing on the thin blades. We spent a little time clinging to the wall to try and sustain our balance.  My friend noticed that the children, whose first time it was, were now skating, not gracefully, but swiftly passing us multiple times in our circular course. My friend was annoyed that it seemed so easy for the kids to learn how to skate while it was so much more challenging for her.  

But then my friend noticed something as she watch the children skate.  She suddenly realize something. “Oh! They figured out how to fall. That’s how they’re doing it.”  We witness this kids fall on the ice, but in a way that softened fall. A few intentionally fell down on the ice.  But after every fall they would get back up and move across the ice. “I’m trying so hard NOT to fall and that’s slowing me down,” my friend explained.  “I think if I learn how to fall I can get this skating thing down.” She eventually practiced her falling, not by intentionally falling, but giving herself permission to fall.  

We all have to learn how to give ourselves permission to fall down.  We often try to keep ourselves safe, but it limits our opportunities.  Failing at something gives us the opportunity to learn something new.  Just because we haven’t achieved our goal on the first try doesn’t mean that we aren’t closer to it.  

Trying not to fall keeps us safe, but a safety that prevents us from growing.  I call this the ‘Safety Bubble.’ In the Safety Bubble we are safe from physical and emotional harm.  We don’t have to prove to ourselves we aren’t good at something, we don’t have to put ourselves out there, and we can maintain a comfortable state.  But we are trapped in the Safety Bubble, because if we go out of it then we are no longer safe. The Safety Bubble is an illusion of safety. It prevents us from building more resilience, but also we might silently criticize ourselves of not having enough motivation, willpower, follow through, or whatever quality we feel we lack.  These thoughts give our inner critics something to bully us with.

What would it look like if we gave ourselves permission to fall?  What if we changed the rules so failing was a good thing? The Netflix series Nailed It has novice bakers attempt to make challenging baked goods that are beyond their skills.  Would the bakers have loved to skillfully recreate the tasty confections? Absolutely! But the show celebrate and finds humor and warmth in mistakes and lessons learned through the process.  The bakers give themselves permission to try something and celebrate their failures.

Dread and Goals for Growth

When trying to move out of the Safety Bubble we have to look both at the dread and the goals for growth.  If we look at the areas we dread we might learn something. For example George’s dread involves missing one of his transitions or not being taken seriously.  What if he intentionally did it? How would he recover? George could make an intentional slip up on his slides and add a joke to pull in his audience. This allows George to think how he could survive his Epic Fail, but also create a challenge for growth for himself.  After all he does want to be better at public speaking, and trying this out might help him practice those skills.

Epic Fail Challenge

I sometimes encourage people to look at failure as a great opportunity to be celebrated.  But what are the failures we are worried about? Julie wants to take up the Improv workshop but worries about embarrassing herself.  But part of why Julie is attracted to Improv is for the creativity and being allowed to take chances. If Julie can reframe seeing failure as a growth opportunity it would be great for her to go to the workshop, and if she bombs then she will not only be alright, but pushed herself in taking chances.  Julie eventually realized that every embarrassing event that has happened to her ended up with a great story she likes sharing with friends. So if she does embarrass herself she will have another great story. Julie has now learned to make embarrassment from a dread/hurdle into an Epic Fail Challenge.

Critics and Self-Compassion

As we go through this journey of reaching for our goals we have to be mindful of how we talk to ourselves.  We can convince ourselves that the Safety Bubble or we don’t have the abilities/attributes to achieve what we want.  All of us have a voice in our heads that says that we are not good enough; An internal critic. Tyler’s critic is telling them that it is not worth it to apply to new jobs or go out and try to date.  It might help Tyler to explore how his critic talks and how maybe to talk back to that critic. Practicing self-compassion is hard for many of us, but we need it to not beat ourselves up and create a need for the Safety Bubble.  If we learn to be kinder to ourselves we might make it easier to take more risks.

All these things are not easy to change and we have to create time and thought in how we want to pursue these changes.  Therapy is an excellent want to find more guidance and work collaboratively with someone to help reach your goals.

So what are your goals?  Where do you want to give yourself permission to fall?