Like with almost everything, balance is key. In the past, I wrote about how fear is okay. But, not too much…find the balance. Here I write an example of the need for balance, as fear alone is not going to do the trick; while it can connect us, it can’t alone motivate us. It’s simply the complex nature of our emotions (irony intended).
Psychotherapists tend to talk a lot about feelings. We do have the tendency in psychotherapy to focus on more negative emotions, then processing and making sense of them, all the while trying to work through them. The more I work with negative emotions and witness the effects it can have on a person (for example, through demeanor changing mid-session into an even more negative emotional state), the more I am drawn to those positive experiences that can occur and subsequent reactions they can elicit. However, a 50-minute therapy session is not full of positive experiences, no matter how hard we try. Inevitably we have to process the negative experiences. As that is human nature.
But, what can we learn from how we handle both the negative and the positive experiences we endure, in the larger scheme? It might be a rather simple hypothesis to some, but what sticks out for me is the factor that affects our motivation. And while it’s likely not a single event or state of being that contributes to any one person’s motivation, I have found that there are certain emotional states that do not seem to lend themselves as readily to sustained motivation as others. And, it would appear somewhat regularly in my practice, that those emotional states tend to be more objectively “negative,” or those that would typically cause a client distress if they sat with them for long enough in a therapy session.
The Issue with Fear
The feeling of fear is a core feeling that we can experience. It might be seen on the surface as something we could refer to as “anxiety,” and perhaps one which we associate with often (if processed to that point often enough.) I’ve also written about how it can be helpful in certain circumstances where allowing ourselves to feel fear, and be vulnerable in that way, can help in connecting with those close to us. That feeling of fear, when sat with, might also be energizing. Take cavemen, for example: they existed almost exclusively on that feeling of fear to survive, so as to not be eaten by predatory animals. If they let go of their fear, they might relax enough to not watch their own backs.
However, I’d like to believe that we are a bit more evolved as a society than cavemen, in that we are likely not going to be eaten by predatory animals simply going about our day. There are, however, circumstances where we would, such as camping in the woods. We would, therefore, use our part of the brain and body that detects or predicts fear to pitch our tent in a certain location (hint: away from the food, which we would also use fear to remember to package it up as tightly as possible!) Yet, just going about our average day, fear is not necessarily the most vital emotion to our existence. But we use it so regularly, unfortunately. It’s as if we are hard-wired to attach to fear for almost everything we do, in some way. Many clients will report a fear of getting fired as a reason for working hard. Or a fear that we won’t be successful enough if we don’t develop the proper skills in a career path we are on. Or that we won’t progress quickly enough on said career path.
Another Way to Motivate
All of those examples are examples of how fear is used to motivate. But, what I see is that it is simply motivating us away from what we are afraid of, and not necessarily towards that which is pleasurable. In the spirit of achieving satisfaction and contentment with ourselves (while bearing in mind that negative things happen to all of us as that is the human condition), how is this way of motivating oneself going to lead to satisfaction and contentment? I can see it doing so in the very short-term, as we will avoid that which we are afraid of and therefore feel an easing of that fear. However, it seems like it would lead to an endless cycle, where we are always identifying that which we want to get away from. We might never identify what exactly we are working towards.
It is in that aforementioned “positive” emotion, that which can elicit contentment and satisfaction in a therapy session, is that which will be most helpful, because with that comes self-esteem. The emotion itself is derived differently in everyone and so might take some processing to understand what that is, but research would say that goals are more regularly achieved in an individual with a higher self-esteem.
Yet, somehow, even though we can, we refuse to loosen the grip on the caveman inside of us.