Updated: Oct 31, 2020
"The most common way that people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any"
- Alice Walker
Have you ever described yourself or someone else as lazy? It might be more accurate to use the term unmotivated. Motivation is the drive or energy behind completing tasks or projects. Motivation and mood are intrinsically connected. One of the more insidious aspects of depression and anxiety is the obliteration of motivation. Depression and anxiety are vampires that steal our motivation and energy, and in the process convince us that we can't do the things we want to do. Ironically symptoms of depression and anxiety can be ameliorated by activity: exercise, showering, spending time with other people, but an inability to do these things is at the heart of the illness. We can get caught in a vicious cycle of feeling bad, being unmotivated, then feeling even more shame and discouragement for not pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps because these simple tasks become so heavy and burdensome.
There is often a negative correlation between shame and motivation, the more shame we experience, the less motivation we have. Not only do we lose our energy and drive, but also our confidence in our ability to complete important and even mundane tasks. Most of the people that come to my office with symptoms of depression and anxiety already know the steps that might make them feel better, but getting over the motivation hump seems impossible. If you find yourself caught in this unhelpful and unproductive cycle, it might be useful to confront any underlying feelings of shame. Tune into the language that your inner narrative takes. Do you hear thoughts like: "I am lazy," "I am worthless," "I'm so stupid." Notice the labeling of 'I am...' Whenever we hear "I am..." followed by something that we would probably never say to someone else, this is shame speaking.
The simplest way to explain shame is to contrast it with guilt, as these two words are often conflated or used interchangeably. Guilt is feeling bad about an action or behavior, something we've done, shame is feeling bad about the person we are. Shame based thinking conflates behaviors with character. Notice how these statements differ: "I did something that I feel bad about" and "I'm a terrible person because I hurt someone I care about." The difference is subtle but important. Our behaviors can and do change, but our character is more enduring. When we conflate character with behavior we make behavior immutable, and less likely to change. A logical next step if you notice yourself doing this, is to clarify character and behavior. Thoughts and feelings are always internal, other people can only know these if we give them access to these experiences or communicate them in some way. Behavior on the other hand, is anything that we do, something that can be observed by someone else. When confronting shame it can be very helpful to separate and label these internal and external experiences, and to notice when our behaviors don't line up with our values or beliefs.
"I forgot my wife's birthday and this hurt her feelings" is very different from "I'm such a piece of shit because I forgot my wife's birthday." Notice the first statement is behavior focused, the second is character focused. Being mindful of the difference in our self-talk will help to facilitate behavioral change. If you notice that your behavior doesn't match up with your values you might feel guilt, guilt is useful and can lead to adjusting behavior to better match values. This might look like: "I forgot my wife's birthday and this hurt her feelings. I'm going to own my mistake and apologize, and go ahead and set an alert in next year's calendar so that it doesn't happen again." Now it's your turn, think about an experience that you feel bad about. Now separate the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors involved. "I did..." I thought..." "I felt..." Our behaviors and thoughts can be changed, our feelings are simply red flags that can let us know when this needs to happen. Noticing "I am..." judgments can be a helpful step in reconnecting with motivation.
If shame isn't what's getting in the way of accomplishing goals, it might be helpful to clarify exactly what is. Is energy and issue, or time management? Are your goals really your own or ones that have been imposed on you by someone else? It might be useful to take a closer look at the values that you live by, are you clear on what those are? If you're not entirely sure about these, a values clarification exercise is located here: https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/farmsuccession/files/2016/11/Core-Values-Exercise_Integrity_Consulting_Services.pdf; and here https://thehappinesstrap.com/upimages/Long_Bull%27s_Eye_Worksheet.pdf
After completing a values clarification exercise, are your goals congruent with your values? If your goals don't actually fit with your values it might be useful to revisit your goals and update as needed. We human beings are complex creatures and at times our values might be in competition with one another, this is a pretty common scenario, especially in relation to how we use our time and other resources. When this happens it's helpful to first acknowledge the complexity of our experience and . the world we live in, then take a step back and try to utilize a big-picture perspective. In the big picture, what course of action will help you meet your goals in a way that best fits with your values? In DBT terms this is called being effective.
Tuning into your self-talk can be very helpful in determining what underlies a lack of motivation. If this exploration leads you to the conclusion that you're unmotivated because you're paralyzed by feelings of being overwhelmed, try breaking down large tasks into smaller pieces. Make a list, then enjoy crossing items off the list as you complete them. This might help to build your self-confidence and momentum to keep going. If you're experiencing a lack of motivation that stems from depression, brain chemistry might be the issue and it might be helpful to talk to your doctor about antidepressant medication. Antidepressant medication might help regulate sleep, energy, and focus, which should also improve motivation. Regardless of the cause of decreased motivation, clarifying values is always a useful thing to do. We evolve in response to time passing and experiences that we have, so questioning our values can help us to live authentically as we change through time and experience. I would love to hear about your experiences, what helps you to stay motivated and focused? What is helpful when you find yourself unmotivated?