Dear Therapist,

I have been struggling with motivation lately, and for the past few years really. There are a number of aspects of my life that just aren’t working and I’m clear I need to make changes but I lack the confidence take action. So I remain stuck, knowing change needs to happen but not doing anything about it. I’m scared my motivation may never return. Help!


Scared to Change

Dear Scared,

Yours is a situation I see often in my client work. Understandably, clients want tips and hacks to jump start motivation. I find a good starting place is to look at what might be getting in the way. 

First, a big stumbling block to making change is the idea we have to feel like doing something before we take action. So many of us believe we will start living the life we want to live once some preconditions like confidence or motivation (in your case) are there. It takes courage to act based on the life we actually find ourselves in rather than waiting for some idealised version in which we feel comfortable and secure and therefore able to embark on change. Inevitably, these idealised preconditions never come (or if they do, more preconditions are added) and so we remain inactive, feeling helpless. 

So, my first suggestion is to stop expecting motivation to spontaneously arrive, to take it out of consideration entirely, and instead commit to a habit of discipline. Once you are philosophically on board with this idea, action becomes easier. It isn’t contingent on the emotional weather system; you show up and put in some effort whatever the climate. 

Another pitfall we make is setting the bar too high therefore all but ensuring that we’ll fail to clear it. All-or-nothing thinking sets in. We expect ourselves to become an entirely different person overnight. The sedate individual who devises a gym routine seven days a week. The unhealthy eater who gives up dairy, glutton, sugar, meat, alcohol and caffeine in one go. Or the ‘over achiever’ who tackles both – and more! – at the same time and burns herself out in a matter of days. 

Instead, I encourage us all to set ourselves up for success. Start small. Bite sized. ‘Little and often’ as the saying goes. An anxious client of mine started one minute of conscious breathing on waking. Noticing how much better he felt, he extended it to three minutes. A few months later he is now doing ten minutes and the short practice has transformed how his days begin. After each new step, take time to savour your successful action and allow for the dopamine release this provides. In this way, a positive feedback loop is created (there’s that motivation and confidence we were looking for after all, cultivated and coaxed out through action!)

A final roadblock I’ll mention is the potential for competing needs that are at odds with making change. I worked with a young woman who came to London for university and wanted to stay here to follow her dreams but struggled to go through the job recruiting process as staying would mean disappointing her family overseas. Her need to be a good daughter was driving her (in)actions. Or I think of a widower who desperately wanted to find new love but who, on exploration, also acknowledged that any interest in another woman would feel like a betrayal of his wife. What competing needs might be keeping you in your current position? When we are clear on these, we can work with them consciously and get honest with ourselves about what matters most. Said differently, what is the opportunity cost (to borrow a term from economics) of change? When we look this ‘cost’ in the eye, we acknowledge that change often necessitates an acceptance of limitations, and maybe loss. Perhaps our inaction reflects a denial of these realities. So ask yourself: What limitation or loss might you have to accept to make room for change?

Good luck!

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