Is Your Motivation Helpful or Harmful? - Erin's Inside Job

Is Your Motivation Helpful or Harmful?

Something that I am always thinking about is whether my motivation is helpful or harmful. Motivations are great–they help us get things done and achieve things we never thought we could.  As an addict, I am predisposed to using the worst possible reasons for any type of behavior. In order to live a whole, peaceful life, I need to make sure that my motivations are things that will allow me to function in an emotionally healthy way. Here are some ways I’ve learned to see if your motivation is helpful or harmful.

I have danced around this subject in a number of different posts.  I often find that my motivations become harmful when I am unhappy with myself or I am trying to avoid feelings that make me uncomfortable.  Rather than take a closer look at my self-esteem or sit through those feelings that cause me discomfort, I try and distract myself with other things that I feel are more in my control.

For me, some of my top areas (in no particular order) where I need to make sure my motivations are in check are:

  1. Exercise
  2. Eating
  3. Media (watching TV, movies, time spent on blog, etc.)


When I was in grad school I would cut out pictures from fitness magazines and put them on my refrigerator for “inspiration”. When I was in college my computer wallpaper was always some brand of model dressed in Photoshop. In high school I would count down the days until I could get my new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit calendar.  For as long as I have been aware of my body, I have used unhealthy motivations to shame it. Some of you may be able to use these images as inspiration, but I am certainly not one of them.

I have had many periods of unhealthy exercise in my life, so learning helpful motivations has taken a lot of time. I used to wake up at 4:45 am, drive 20 min to the gym, run 5 miles, then do strength training for another 45-60 min. I did this 5 days a week. Other times I would have trouble sleeping and wake up to do more exercise because I didn’t think I had done enough that day. I developed a (self-diagnosed) stress fracture after ignoring shin pain and running 12 miles back to back.

  • Helpful: I love to seeing how strong these workouts have made me! By adding in strength and HIIT training, my mile time has gone down by 0:45 seconds! I love being able to accomplish things I never thought I could.
  • Harmful: I ate too many desserts yesterday; I have to work extra to burn them off. There’s no space in between your thighs; you can’t take a rest day this week.

Spoiler alert: the times when I almost (because you could never convince me even if I did) looked like some random model pasted on my fridge were also the times when I was the most miserable inside. Learning to appreciate and accept my body is a far healthier motivator for me today than shaming myself into potential injury.


Oh food, how I love you. There was definitely a time when we did not get along, but it wasn’t food’s fault. I take full responsibility.

I grew up with serious self-image issues (see above). In attempts to not only burn off all the fat in my body with exercise, I decided that a better way to do that would be to not make the fat in the first place. Enter disordered eating.  I’ve talked about it before so I won’t go into great detail, but my relationship with food has changed over the years and is constantly evolving.

  • Helpful: It’s been awhile since I’ve had some gelato but I’m definitely feeling like some for dessert tonight. (The more we restrict certain foods, the more likely we are to obsess and overeat them later).
  • Harmful: That has too much sugar; you can’t have any of it. I’m feeling down and worthless so maybe these cookies will make me feel better. Nope. How about this cereal? Chocolate? Ice cream? (I like desserts).

I chose to control what I ate because I couldn’t control the other things going on in my life. Food is tricky because my motivation to eat can go both ways. I can control and restrict what I put in my mouth when I feel powerless and I can eat everything in sight because I’m experiencing some emotion(s) that I don’t want to feel.  I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out why I want to eat or not eat certain things, but it’s still something that I have to focus on at times.


There is no greater feeling of relief for me these days than being overwhelmed with life and choosing to dive into hours of television instead.  It is comparable to the feeling I would get while using: feeling that the world is closing in on me and then a glorious weight being lifted.  That is how I know whether my decision to watch 5 episodes of The Sopranos in a row is me genuinely enjoying the show or an escape from life’s responsibilities.

  • Helpful: My to-do list is checked off and everything is caught up for the day. I’ve worked hard and am choosing to relax this way.
  • Harmful: I have an article due tomorrow, I haven’t written my next post yet, I have a bunch of administrative things to get done, and I have to teach class later on tonight. I can do these things tomorrow, but right now I just want to lose myself in television. *sigh* *relief*

The only issue with this is that the things that have overwhelmed me haven’t gone anywhere. They still need to get done. Spending hours with the TV or commenting on blogs doesn’t accomplish my responsibilities, it only postpones them. Taking the easy way out too often can lead to a cyclical pattern of stress and anxiety as I put things off, momentarily find relief with numbing media outlets, then remember what needs to get done and panic again.

Motivations are not black and white; there are times when I have had a bad day and I want to eat a brownie or watch a movie.  Periodic relief from feelings is fine, but it becomes an issue when the things we do to escape our feelings go unchecked and run rampant.  There is no diagnostic checklist to tell if these things are harmful and what could be harmful for one person may not be for another (and vice versa). Developing a good sense of self-awareness and introspection is necessary to be able to really know if you are harming or helping yourself with your behaviors. How good is yours?


  • What are some of your motivators? Are they healthy or harmful?
  • What are some areas where you need to check your motivation?

26 comments on “Is Your Motivation Helpful or Harmful?

    1. Thanks girl! You’re definitely right about all of that. Asking for help is always the hardest for me

    1. I definitely agree! Sometimes it is easier than others though for me. The question can definitely apply to lots of different things in life!

  1. SO great! I love the honesty, as always! I think that this idea is so important, but people so rarely are able to analyze their own habits to determine whether things are helpful or harmful. I probably need to start doing this myself, just to make sure that I stay in check. Bad habits are SO easy to fall back in to!
    Stephanie @ My Freckled Life recently posted…One Bad PhotoMy Profile

    1. Thanks Stephanie! Bad habits are super easy to fall back into, especially if you are used to doing them for SO long!

  2. this is totally on point! healthy motivation is really helpful and adds a lot of joy to life, whereas unhealthy pressure and self-imposed stressed takes the healthy factor out of the game. like when i was training for my last marathon, it was going on awesome the first 2 months! but i was also planning my wedding and had 2 surgeries, so i got injured and chose to ignore the pain because i was too nervous and not training. welp, that didn’t work and i ended up practically walking the whole marathon, but i was a newlywed and my hubby did it with me. so overall there were many good things and lessons learned. i’m a sucker for endorphins and knowing when to ease up is a daily goal. thanks for another great post!

    1. I’ve learned some of my best lessons by walking through them. At the time it never feels good, but the knowledge I get in going forward is usually invaluable. I bet your half experience taught you to be more mindful about listening to your body! 🙂

  3. That’s a really good question to ask ourselves in the areas of life you listed. Recovering from an ED myself and being a procrastinator I don’t have the balance of ‘right’ motivations down yet. I feel it can be tough to talk into our own minds in the very situation and a lot easier in hindsight. Though that again can be helpful the next time a similar decision comes around.
    Miss Polkadot recently posted…Truthful ThursdayMy Profile

    1. It’s always about doing things a little better than last time, even if they’re not perfect. I like to try and use what I have learned from the past to make better decisions in the future, but it still doesn’t always come naturally. Thanks for reading!

  4. On point! Self-talk is such an interesting thing. It can be positive or negative, and can be changed just with the flip of switch. But it takes a lot of introspection to realize when we’re talking to ourselves in a harmful way. I’m the same way with food, for the most part. I don’t have lots of guilt with eating, but I still struggle with emotionally eating.
    Lauren @ ihadabiglunch recently posted…Studio Review: Flywheel Old TownMy Profile

    1. Samesies. I try and listen to myself but also not beat myself up. Sometimes it’s a battle zone in this head of mine!

  5. Great post for me to read this week, Erin! I suffer majorly from anxiety, and I’ve had a really tough week (in fact, I spent one whole day in bed and super depressed). I used to use external sources of “motivation” like pictures of models on my freezer so I wouldn’t eat more, etc. Now, I don’t do those things, because I know that they aren’t helpful. However, these days, the best motivation I get is when I force myself up and get moving. Once I’ve done that, I find I make better food choices, have a better attitude, etc. Wonderful post, as always! 🙂
    Erin recently posted…Easter WeekendMy Profile

    1. Same here! I know if I start my day off with something positive, the rest of my thoughts/actions tend to follow suit. Glad you liked it!

  6. Love your insights, girl. This is something I’ve actually given quite a bit of thought to myself, both in terms of my own motivations and those of others. I think self-awareness is so important when it comes to maintaining a healthy, balanced life… and that it’s equally important not to judge others based on their behaviours because you don’t -know- what their motivations are. The same behaviour can manifest from two opposite motivations, and you never really know which one it is unless you’re in that position yourself.
    Amanda @ .running with spoons. recently posted…. banana oat baked french toast .My Profile

    1. That’s something that I still struggle with-not judging others bc you have no idea where they are coming from or what they have gone through. I never remember to think of that but it’s something I want to do more of!

  7. I completely agree that certain motivations are harmful and place us farther away from our goals. It’s good that you’re aware and can recognize when negative motivation is kicking in and influencing you. I don’t find those images helpful or motivating either, I prefer to be mindful of my family history with cardiovascular issues and use that to remind me that it’s about extending my life nothing else. Hope you have a great weekend Erin! -Iva
    AwesomelyOZ recently posted…What I’m Currently Learning and Sinus Infection HorrorsMy Profile

  8. Great post. I had to think about this for a minute, but one way to transition from harmful to helpful motivation is to look at what you’re measuring. “How fat do I look today?” is completely different than “Did I stock up on healthy groceries this week and set myself up for success?”.
    Mandy recently posted…First We Form Habits, Then They Form UsMy Profile

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