Overcoming Comp Beh Part 3

Overcoming Compulsive Behavior, Part 3 – Creating and Sustaining Motivation To Change

Positive vs. Negative Motivation

The most commonly applied type of motivation in American culture is negative motivation.  Negative motivation is that derived from a desire to move away from a negative condition such as attempting to quit smoking out of a fear of lung cancer or going on a diet because one does not want to be fat. Negative motivation is fear based and, although it may appear to help us get started on our plan, it is sure to fail over the long-haul. Negative motivation relies on will power, a finite commodity, for sustenance.  A byproduct of negatively motivated behavior is anxiety. With the negative motivator, e.g. fear of being fat, continually present in the mind, we reinforce the fear, maintain a mental image of the undesired condition and generate anxiety over the results of anticipated failure.

Positive motivation, a more sustainable form of motivation, is that generated by a desire to move toward a positive condition. In this example, rather than focusing on not wanting to have a fat body, we focus on having a lean and healthy body. Keeping our focus on the desired result maintains the positive image in the mind. Using positive motivation, we also do not have to rely on will power. Rather, we will rely on our continued reaffirming of the desired results.

What’s In This For Me?

An important question to answer as we begin any change process is, “Why, what’s in this for me?” Why are you taking on the difficult process of bringing change into your life? When I posed the question to Pete, a man who had come to me for assistance in quitting smoking, his response was, “My doctor told me that I was on the verge of developing emphysema and that I had to quit smoking. My wife wants me to quit, too.” These might seem like a good reasons to quit smoking. The suggestion came from an authority figure and who would want emphysema or to disappoint your wife?

The obvious problem with Pete’s reason for taking on a major life-change is that it is negatively motivated. The second problem, which we haven’t discussed, is that his motivation is coming from outside of himself, i.e. the doctor told him he HAD TO quit and his wife’s wanting him to.

When we ask ourselves the question, “Why, what’s in this for me?” (I suggest writing down your answers) it is important to pay attention to how we answer the question. Any responses that begin with “I should,” “I have to,” “I need to,” “I ought to” or “I must” are indicative of the motivation coming from an external source, be it authoritative, family member, friend, religious organization, etc. Even though the request being made by the outside source seems rational, most of us will rebel against even the appearance of being told what to do by someone or something else. Having worked, professionally, with people who have been told by the courts that they need to quit drinking alcohol, I can attest to the low level of compliance when the motivation is externally imposed and not internalized by the individual.

As I mentioned, the only sustainable source of motivation is from within us. A necessary step in beginning the process of creating motivation to change is taking ownership of that which we want to change and getting clear about what is in it for us. When I take ownership of the process and gain clarity regarding what I want to attain, my answer to the question sounds more like, “I WANT to change ___ BECAUSE ___.” Contrast that with, “I must change, or else.”

Using Pete’s example: “I want to be smoke-free (ownership) because I desire clean, healthy lungs (positive outcome)” as opposed to his first statement that showed neither ownership nor positive outcome. If Pete has not owned his reasons for wanting to be smoke-free it will be much more difficult for him to maintain his resolve when the inevitable urges to smoke come upon him.

To begin your process:

  1. State your desired outcome using positive language.
  2. Answer the question, in writing, “Why? What’s in this for me?” Be sure to state your reasons positively, as well.
  3. Go back and elaborate each answer. Describe how you will feel when you reach your goal. Use expressive, emotional language. The more emotional, the better it will stick to your psyche.
  4. Keep your list handy for continued reference and, if necessary, modification. You will review it frequently as you move through your change process to keep you focused.  When your motivation begins to fade, which it will, you will have this list of your reasons, in your language to remind you of why you started this process in the first place. This will assist you in continually renewing your motivation.

Your efforts to change are more likely to be successful if you own the process and are clear about your reasons for taking on the difficult process of making changes.


©2011 George J. Limberakis, LPC