Friday, May 29, 2009

Motivation: I'm just a Pavlov's Dog

I've been writing and thinking a bit lately about motivation (see procrastination label), and keep getting stuck about what to do. I thought I understood the problem, but if that was the case, why was the solution not also apparent? Well, I think I was missing something crucial, because I was only thinking about procrastination, and not lack of motivation.  

So I was lying in bed last night, and it came to me.  What makes people want to acheive, to succeed? It's not pressure to be perfect, pressure to impress people, not really.  It's because they get a reward for their achievements. It makes them feel good about themselves, it contributes to their positive self-image and self-esteem.  And that is the difference - for some reason, I was taught NOT to feel good about my achievements.  Whatever I did, whether it was getting straight A's, editing the yearbook, or winning swimming races, I never learned to celebrate my victories. They were expected of me, not validated. I remember being too ashamed to line up in first place to recieve my gold medal for the two races I won in the Ontario Swimming Championships.  Anything I achieved must by definition be easy, since I was no good.  I learned early that being proud of myself was very undesirable.  I discredit compliments, admiration, encouragement, awe...This isn't just perfectionism. I've gotten over a lot of that, I have had to relinquish a lot of things I used to hold true about myself. My brain doesn't work like it used to, I slip up all the time, forget many many things.  I've been okay with that, gradually. But when it comes to my productivity, I can never feel good about things I've done. Does it surprise you, then, that I lack motivation to start and especially finish things? 

If I can't feel good about myself for the things I finish and acheive, what is my motivation to get them done? I must deflect all praise for my finished projects. I must find reasons not to be proud, to find them not up to standard. Sometimes I think this is because I know I had the potential to do much better - had I not had the obstacles of illness in my way - the fatigue, the inability to concentrate, the inner critic, the pain. But I am not allowed a handicap. I'm not allowed to say it's good in spite of my difficulties and struggles. I can't glow with pride and show off what I have done, like any artist needs to. The moment I feel proudness welling up, shame steamrolls over it.  How dare I be satisfied with myself for even one fleeting moment?  My lot is to work relentlessly without reward, because that is what I OWE.  Where do these ideas come from? All I know is that I am squeamish accepting the slightest praise about my jewelry and knitting.  Even though I know my writing is excellent, and can say so, I can't let it get me anywhere in life.  Whatever my talents, I shouldn't take credit for them.  

Countless hours in the pool, countless hours reading and doing homework - these are not the reasons I did well in swimming and school.  I did not attend either my highschool or university graduation.  Not allowed to celebrate my achievements.  If I can't feel good about anything I do, why do anything?  My job now is to find a way to be proud of myself without being ashamed of it. To realize that these feelings are human, normal, and GOOD.  They are what motivate people to continue to realize their dreams, successes.  They are what allow people to feel like they deserve to be paid for their work.  To feel valuable and like they are contributing.  To feel like they belong in the world.  Killing my feelings of pride about what I do is killing me in all of these ways, and I have to reconcile.  I have to change my beliefs about feeling proud and celebrating my accomplishments.  I have to start believing these feelings are my right, they are deserved, they don't mean I'm self-centred or egotistical.  They are just necessary for a good self-image, a sense of autonomy, purpose, efficacy.  Feeling good about what I accomplish is necessary for confidence and self-esteem.  I refuse awhile ago to keep beating myself up, but I can see now that I still do it.  My inner critics still have a way to control me and keep me down - by keeping me squashed, keeping me from taking any reward whatsoever for my efforts and labour.  I've been living in a concentration camp of my own making, with a thankless task-master who allows not a moment of rest between finishing one job and starting another.  It's no wonder, now, that I refuse to come out of my bunk most of the time.  

Awareness of this, the last gigantic way I am holding myself back, is the first step.  I am going to start letting myself enjoy the things I make, I'm going to listen carefully and try to absorb any praise I get.  I'm going to let myself be proud more often, and when I feel ashamed, I'm going to tell myself I have nothing to be ashamed of.  Because I know that much is true.

Pavlov's dogs experienced "extinction" when the bell was consistently not followed by food (stimulus and reward).  I have experienced extinction too, but I can retrain myself, if I let myself enjoy the 'food' of my labours instead of continuing to believe my bowl doesn't deserve to be filled with kibble.  After all, I do press the lever once in awhile.


I sometimes write things that I don't really mean or believe. These are not to be taken literally, nor as definitive statements about me or my beliefs. Thoughts and emotions are transient, and I reserve the right to change my mind, generalize, exaggerate, give strong opinions, or write other possibly offensive statements. I don't lie, but I may say something that's not true to check whether I believe it or not, or to make a point. Call it creative license. This is my blog, and do have the right to say what I want. I'm using it in creatively therapeutic ways. Whatever the reader may think of me and my words, please believe that my core intentions are always good and I never willingly hurt anyone.