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:
- 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?