“How do you know, right now, that you are aware of being aware, or conscious?”
— Henry Reed, poet
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
This is about the motivation to change. Changes of consequence generate conflict because our personality doesn’t like to change. We’d much rather change the situation than change ourselves. We can count on ourselves to work for our best interests. We cannot expect the situation to do the same.
We want positive, promising, rewarding opportunities, but situations never appear exactly as we want them. In addition, the larger the opportunity, the more we’ll be attracted to it, and the less likely it will meet our expectations. To limit risk we work for smaller opportunities but worry these are not enough.
Conflicts of Motivation and Opportunity
People who come to counseling have conflicts of motivation and opportunity. They don’t come when things are going as they planned. They come when they feel a lack of control in a situation that requires change. What sort of change should they be working toward?
Courage is the willingness to take risks for uncertain gains. Most people have little courage, partly because they feel insecure and partly because they don’t know how to balance the risks of the situation against its rewards.
We can define personal security as the ability to balance risks and rewards without feeling inadequate. Naturally, we can’t feel secure in every situation, but we don’t want to tinker with our sense of self. That’s the branch we’re standing on. We’d much rather change the situation.
The scientist and Buddhist Michael Behrens mentions (2022) that our hands shape the way we perceive the world. Because our hands are the main organ by which we control the world, we think of our lives as something best controlled by our manipulation of it. Our most reliable sense of reality comes from what we see, feel, and manipulate.
Our brains interpret, our hands affect, and our motivation connects the two. If we feel lacking in power or understanding, we expand these by acquiring new skills. But if we don’t know what to do, or if we can’t seem to do it, then we may see the problem lies in us.
Being Conscious and Aware
Being functional requires being conscious and aware. This is a wide, middle state of being. In most situations, we are provisionally conscious and respond in a habitual manner. This is a state of being present without being engaged. We feel sufficient in our existing understanding and ability, so we act according to preexisting plans. Thinking amounts to little more than recalling the plan.
We imagine a better state than normal. We allude to this state and it motivates us, but we don’t get far in describing it. We don’t aim for perfection or nirvana—neither of which we could describe—instead, we aim for a more comfortable state. Regardless of whether this is practical, it’s something we can understand. We can always describe how things could be better.
It’s mostly fear, discomfort, or dissatisfaction that motivates us. Each of these creates a duality that suggests its attractive opposite. Most of us need a negative connection to strive for the positive. It’s through the experience of these negatives that we’re motivated to make things better. When our attitude toward things is in the middle—a point at which we’re not too afraid, uncomfortable, or dissatisfied—most of us don’t change.
I’m motivated by abstractions. I work on projects in physics and brain science. These projects are not clearly connected to any negative and don’t generate any immediate positives, but if I think about it carefully, I can feel negative connections.
The negatives are personal insecurity, lack of meaning, and inadequacy. I’m not sure if the negative things that motivate me are essential or contrived. I might dispense with these burdens, and I suspect I should be more satisfied with what I have, but these negative feelings motivate my work that otherwise provides scant reward.
What We Can Describe and What We Can Achieve
We push against intangible feelings in our efforts to obtain rewards that are both difficult to describe and achieve. I must spend lots of time on my big projects if I’m going to even hope to make progress. I take satisfaction in small, uncertain advances.
Working on projects of consequence connects me with my dissatisfaction and a sense of greater things. The promise of accomplishment motivates me, and I take the reasonable attitude that I must find reward in the process, since there’s a good chance I won’t succeed. To a large extent, I’m not even sure what success would be. Simply figuring that out would be progress!
When I look at other people, I see three groups: people who are rewarded by simpler pursuits, people who struggle with their lack of a positive direction, and people without strong satisfactions or dissatisfactions. This third is the largest group. It’s hard to be sure because, despite what people may say, they don’t do much. In particular, they don’t come to me for counseling, so I don’t know what they’re thinking.
Most of us aspire to a more comfortable life, but we won’t risk too much for it. We don’t want to lose what we’ve got and we don’t put ourselves at risk for things we’re unlikely to gain. I’m one of those people who engages my low-grade dissatisfaction and makes significant investments in what’s considered unachievable.
Several of my clients remain anxious, frustrated, or uncertain despite their success. I work to amplify their negative and positive feelings in order to better understand what motivates them. It’s often their disconnection from their dissatisfaction that confuses them. They’re not sure what they should do, because everything seems under control, but something is missing.
Focusing on Dissatisfaction
I empathize and encourage my clients to consider what motivates them. This is another way to approach the question of value. You are motivated by what feels valuable.
Focusing on low-grade dissatisfactions can make your path clear. With that clarity, you can decide what is most rewarding and what risks are worth taking.
Discerning value makes it possible to draw boundaries. Lacking boundaries reflects a lack of values. Values support judgment.
People who are already in distress don’t need this reminder. They are well in touch with where they don’t want to be. When I work with these people, I aim to clarify realistic goals. These can start as intellectual or emotional. Both are necessary, and a bridge needs to grow between them. No strategy is useful if it lacks emotion.
There are More Steps Beyond Commitment
I like to think that I’m helping people decide and commit, and I am, to some degree. But I’m also taking them to the next step, and that brings them to confront themselves at another level. It’s a deeper level of more fundamental feelings, and it’s another threshold of indecision.
People move forward a step at a time, and these steps can get bigger as well as getting smaller. The deeper we go, psychologically speaking, the more fundamental are the issues we confront. If there is a deeper issue, then resolving the superficial issue will lead you to it.
You might come to me with an issue between yourself and your partner, or between your needs and your wants. These usually represent a deeper conflict, which becomes more clear when you solve the presenting problem.
Many clients come to me with a practical issue and resolve it, only to unearth the deeper conflict. They often stop there because they were only prepared to face the immediate issue, not the life-changing one.
I cannot judge them if they want to stop when they reach that point. Each problem takes its own resources and commitment. Solving one problem puts those that remain in a new perspective that both requires more thought and creates deeper values.
We’re not consistently alive and aware. Attention and insight come and go and it takes a constant effort to remain engaged. A common mistake in creating change is the misperception that what triggers you is the issue. The trigger is only the sign. The issue is what makes the trigger meaningful.
The Connection Between Sign and Meaning
The missing piece is the connection between the sign and its meaning. Our perceptions are tuned to the signs, and we have been trained to put out fires and overlook what smolders. To achieve lasting change, our motivations must match our underlying feelings, the feelings that created the situations that armed the triggers.
Focusing on events by themselves only guarantees that we’ll repeat ourselves. And we’ll keep repeating ourselves until we either exhaust our motivation or get to the bottom of things. This process of seeing the roots of our problems is related to the expression “hitting bottom.”
Recognizing how we need to change and facing despair are two aspects of the same thing. It only feels despairing when the change involves giving up something that feels essential. To be addicted is to believe these two things are the same. Addiction comes from equating who we are with what we want.
Expanding your awareness of yourself is the key to understanding the connection between releasing an aspect of yourself and the things that support it. If you think you need love and you must have love from someone who is not providing it, then you must understand that what you need is not what you think, and the person you’re depending on does not provide it. If you think you need approval, absolution, or support and what you’re depending on does not provide it, then you need to see beyond what you think you need, and see the true motives of whomever you’re relying on.
What Another Person’s Insight Can Do For You
The reason counseling is helpful is that a counselor can see what you don’t want to, and their skill, if they have skill, is to speak without understanding, being encouraged, or making sense. In this way, a counselor is like an oracle: they read your signs without needing to understand them. They expose larger truths, but it’s still your job to make sense of it. Their skill lies not only in seeing more deeply, but also in knowing what you’re ready to hear. Your job is to make yourself ready to hear more.
If you’re ready to understand more, schedule a free call using the link below.
Behrens, M. (2022). The Art of Life (film). Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/7gUh8j5ui0o
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