Why do we do the things we do? What really motivates us to pursue one thing over another?
When I look back at when I was 17, I remember apparently “loving the guitar and being a musician.” This was who I was. It was an image, an identity. Did I enjoy practising my guitar? Not particularly, I resented the time and effort it took. Did I find emotional catharsis from strumming my guitar whilst wailing with my eyes closed in front of my infatuated boyfriend? Nah, not really. It was purely self-serving – all for my fragile little ego which craved admiration and validation from others.
I thought it would be cool to appear all mysterious and that it would make me feel special. I didn’t enjoy playing guitar for its own sake. In my case, the value of it was purely for the things I believed it brought me. I’d seen how passionate others, like my friend Hannah, were at being musicians and the admiration and attention they seemed to get from it and I wanted that. But I didn’t actually enjoy playing in the least bit. And I can now look back at myself at this time with equal measures of compassion and cringe. I did not love guitar. I thought guitar would make others love me.
Nowadays I love walking. I really bloody well do. I’ve walked across Spain, across Scotland, around Botswana and many of the long-distance footpaths in England. I don’t drive. I rely on walking for a large part. I love the steady rhythm and simplicity of stepping one foot in front of the other whilst the scenery changes – there’s always something to observe. I fall into a meditative state. It’s the time and space to reflect on things. It’s the feelings of satisfaction and general sense of well-being from having exercised my body and been out and about in the world. Walking does not however contribute to my feelings of self-worth, nor does it make me feel special or exalted or important in any way. I love walking because I love walking. For its own sake. Just as Hannah genuinely loved playing guitar.
In his book ‘Lost Connections’ Johann Hari addresses how our culture can keep us depressed and amongst the discussion mentions that that there are broadly two types of motives which drive people. These are intrinsic and extrinsic values.
Intrinsic VS Extrinsic Values
Intrinsic values are the things we do for the pure love of it. This is when we feel absorbed in an experience, our ego chatter shuts up and we get lost in what we are doing. Some might experience this through engaging in activities like drawing, playing an instrument, exercise, working, dancing, coding or cooking.
Extrinsic values are the things we do or invest ourselves in NOT because we find the experience is enjoyable and worthwhile in itself, we are doing it to get something else out of it. We might stay late after work to get noticed, appreciated, or extra income to buy something we don’t really need rather than go home to be with family or do the things that really nourish our souls (i.e the intrinsic-y stuff), grasping for higher status, more money and material possessions and ultimately, external validation.
If we’re investing ourselves in things because we think they will make us more admired, liked, approved of, or respected by other people – we are on shaky ground. When we are focusing our attentions on things which are driven by the need to feel worthy and good enough in the eyes of others, we aren’t really enjoying ourselves in the pursuit. We aren’t doing it because we think the experience is worthwhile. We are in fact, motivated NOT towards something we really love, but away from the deficits we feel deep within ourselves.
A social scientist named professor Tim Kasser led 22 studies and found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more we will suffer from depression and anxiety.
Junk food looks like food, but it doesn’t provide us with the nutrition that we need. In the same way junk values don’t provide the soul with the nutrition it needs – that is to have meaning and connection in our lives. Extrinsic values are “KFC for the soul”. Yet our culture constantly pushes us to live extrinsically – so that we invest ourselves in products or pursuits to maintain an image so that we might feel good enough in the eyes of others.
It makes sense that we should want to be loved, admired and highly regarded by others – this is necessary for connection. And as human beings we are hard-wired for connection. We need to feel acknowledged and appreciated. And this is where we can sometimes stumble. Because what we value is the connection itself, but we can get confused with knowing how to go about it. Junk values pretend to provide us with something which might bring us closer to what we actually want. If we are admired or valued for what we do or how we look then surely we are good enough and worthy enough for connection and love.
Take my need for validation and admiration for my “music” (if you could even call it that). What I truly wanted was admiration and acceptance from others. I had a deficit within myself which craved external validation – “Tell me I’m good, tell me I’m ok”. This, I later realised through therapy, was the result of not receiving the necessary attention and validation I needed from family to assure me that I was OK as I was. I did the work necessary and no longer experience the desperate feeling of needing everyone’s approval.
Dr Gabor Mate makes the point about how our culture has a vested interest in keeping us feeling insecure about ourselves in order to sell us products we don’t need. We see it with advertisements all the time – buy this and you will appear and feel better and will therefore worthy of other people’s love and respect.
What if people felt good enough about themselves without the need for flawless make-up, flash cars, latest fashion, top grades, high status, the “perfect” body etc etc? Well for one thing these industries would not be as profitable. But people would be free to pursue and engage in the things that truly light them up and give more attention to the things that really matter.
Let’s take a look at the things we give our time to and ask – is this really bringing me joy? Is there something else I would rather be doing? What do I believe others would think of me if I did something different? Why would it matter? What prevents me from doing it? If it’s fear of other people’s opinions, you are far from alone. But you need not be controlled by it.
Fortunately Cognitive Hypnotherapy is a highly effective way of letting go of limiting beliefs. Often clients find that once they have worked through what was keeping them stuck before their values change in accordance and they are then able to become curious and discover the life they truly want to pursue for themselves.
Many clients find that the shift in mindset which occurs provides them with the confidence to live more shamelessly authentic lives and are far less prone to the anxiety caused by societal pressures as a result.
I’ve certainly experienced this for myself, and how good it feels to feel free to be myself without worrying about what others think.