Humans are wired to seek rewards and avoid punishment. Our constant quest to feel pleasure and avoid pain means that we can pull motivation from almost any situation. After all, our ancestors needed to be equally motivated to run from a hungry tiger and search for delicious berries.
But while running from scary tigers may have helped early humans to survive and reproduce, life in current society has changed considerably. We no longer need to escape predators. But we still want to avoid negative consequences whenever possible.
As a therapist for millennials, many of my clients are high-achieving, hard-working people who know how to use motivation to move ahead in life. But not all motivation is created equal. Some types of motivation can help you in the long run, and others can hurt you.
Understanding the difference between positive and negative motivation can stop the endless cycle of shaming and shoulding, create more self-compassion in your life, and help you reach your goals with your mental health intact.
Nobody likes feeling ashamed of themselves. But can shame help you change yourself to be a “better” person? People who experience feelings of shame are actually more likely to want to change themselves than those who feel other negative emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, or regret. But while shame might serve as motivation to change, it’s a negative motivation.
Negative motivation is based on fear, force, or punishment. It implies pain if the action or change isn’t accomplished. If you do something wrong, you’ll suffer somehow.
Positive motivation, on the other hand, is based on reward and incentives. If you do something right, you’ll receive a reward.
Both types of motivation can come from an external or internal source. For example, if your boss at work is threatening you with a demotion unless you sign a high-paying client, that’s external negative motivation. If you use shame to get yourself to the gym, you might think something like, “ugh, I hate my body. I’m so out of shape. I need to get my shit together and work out or else I’m a total failure.” This is internal negative motivation.
We can use these same examples to look at positive motivation. External positive motivation might be a cash bonus from your boss if you sign the high-paying client. And internal positive motivation might be excitement about meeting a friend at the gym to do your workout together.
While negative motivators can work to motivate you to accomplish your goals, they also can also be a big problem for your mental health. Negative motivation can increase feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, burnout, and low self-worth. It can even fuel feelings of shame and guilt – ironic, considering shame and guilt are often what people are trying to avoid in the first place.
Shame can indeed serve as motivation to change. But if you think of the classic “carrot or the stick” framework, shame is the stick. Shame can be used as a motivator both internally and externally. When someone else says shitty things about how you’re a terrible person, that’s an external source of shame. But when you believe that this person must be right about you – that you really are a terrible person – you internalize the shame. And it’s natural to feel the need to change yourself in order to become better.
But when you use shame as a motivator, you’re actually hurting yourself in the long run. This is because shame is based on fear and deep-seated core beliefs that you’re unworthy. Shame as negative motivation causes you to beat yourself up, “should” yourself, and constantly feel like there’s something wrong with you. It takes a ton of energy to motivate yourself through negative means. Even when you do accomplish your goals, the process doesn’t feel good.
Positive motivation is an inherently kinder and more effective means of change. Instead of being motivated by fear and feelings of unworthiness, you’re motivated by possibility and excitement. When you set goals with the mindset of possibility, you create a lot of space in your life for more positive feelings. There’s less internal tension taking up your energy. Instead, you might feel enthusiastic, optimistic, and eager.
Consider the difference between feeling controlled by fear and feeling naturally optimistic about your goals. Which would you rather have in your life?
If you use shame to make changes in your life, you probably do it unconsciously. And you’re not alone. Shame is a universal human experience. Everybody gets wrapped up in trying to “fix” themselves and their perceived shameful flaws at some point or another. But when you’re driven by shame and other negative motivators, they end up controlling your life.
These tips can help you stop being driven by negative motivation.
Figure out whether there are any patterns that shape your goals and accomplishments. Are your motivators positive, negative, or a mix of both? Do you feel driven by fear and anxiety, or do you feel driven by excitement and optimism?
Spend some time recognizing negative motivators. When does this happen? What does it feel like? What is your typical response? Noticing your beliefs, habits and responses is a crucial step toward changing them. Try not to judge yourself during this process. Think of yourself as a scientist collecting evidence. You aren’t trying to change anything yet – you’re just making observations.
If you want to move more and create a habit of going to the gym, that’s great. But if your motivator is negative – like your partner calling you lazy and dropping passive aggressive hints that you need to be healthier – then this is a problem. For one thing, your partner is being a jerk. And for another, this negative motivation is a breeding ground for resentment, anger, depression, and a host of other mental health issues.
If shame or some other negative motivator is causing you to achieve a goal, ask yourself: “can I reframe my goal in a positive way?” In other words: “can I switch to a positive motivator instead of a negative one?” Are there any incentive-based reasons for you to go to the gym? Do you have a friend you like to go with, or do you go do something fun afterward to reward yourself? Do you genuinely enjoy going to the gym? If you can find a positive reframe for your goal, then great. But if not, you might want to question whether your goal is truly right for you.
Negative motivators like shame can be really difficult to overcome. Dealing with shame and low self-worth requires a lot of patience, self-compassion, coping with difficult emotions, and reframing core beliefs about who you are. Working with a therapist can provide you with much-needed support and guidance throughout this journey.
If you want support in overcoming negative motivation in your life, I can help. Together, we can help you understand the difference between positive and negative motivation in your life, reframe your thoughts and beliefs, and learn how to reach your goals without using fear as a motivator.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.