Why Do We Do What We Do?
How not to be ruled by feelings, habits, impulses, and thoughts.
Posted December 18, 2013 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Recently, one of my colleagues posted a question on the listserve that we share, where she asked us to comment on how we differentiate between needs and motives or motivations. Since I’ve been thinking for a long time about similar questions, I decided to take up this opportunity to engage with this question, which I find both intriguing and deeply significant.
Varieties of Motivation
One of the fundamental premises of the practice of Nonviolent Communication is that everything we do is an attempt to meet core human needs. Much can be said, and I have written about it before, about what exactly counts as a need, and the difference between needs and the many strategies we employ in our attempts to meet them. There is no claim within this practice that we are all the same; only that we share the same core needs, and they serve as the only reason for us to do anything.
If everything is motivated by one or more human needs, then why am I even talking about varieties of motivations? It’s because what varies is the degree of awareness we bring to the relationship between our needs and our actions. As far as I can tell based on my exposure to a number of cultures, our various cultures don’t generally cultivate in us the practice of knowing what we want.
On the contrary, much of socialization is focused on questioning what we want and telling us any number of reasons for acting other than because we want something. This, to me, is a tragedy of enormous proportions, because what then happens is that what we want goes underground. We continue to act based on our needs without knowing what they are, and therefore with far less choice than we might otherwise do.
When we are not aware of needs, we act based on our feelings, thoughts, habits, or impulse. In essence, each of these types of motivation can serve as a way to deny our responsibility for our choices. Although each of these is connected with our needs, unless we specifically engage with the underlying needs, we are likely to continue to act with less choice than we can cultivate and achieve through becoming need-literate.
Feelings and Thoughts
Unless we develop some kind of practice of conscious engagement with our feelings, most of us experience them and respond to them as internal demands for action or avoidance of action whether or not it’s what we want. Fear, shame, or guilt may lead us to avoidance, while anger or excitement leads us to move toward an action.
When we instantly translate feelings into actions, we sidestep any understanding of what we truly want. Because of the strength with which our feelings “command” action, we don’t have the opportunity to use feelings as what they are designed for, which is to be sources of information. Feelings—as I have come to understand them based on reading, self-examination, and working with others—serve a signal function. They arise from the constant stream of data about what is happening, and our ceaseless evaluation, under the radar of our awareness, as to whether or not our needs are met. Listening to our feelings carefully allows us to trace them to the underlying needs that give rise to them. Choice lies precisely there, in the capacity to understand, access, and embrace the underlying needs.
There are many practices that support presence, most notably varieties of meditation. However far we get with such practices, they don’t automatically provide access to knowing our needs. Without a concrete practice of aiming our attention on identifying needs, we are way more likely to link our feelings to thoughts, which are still removed from what I see as our primary, inherent motivation.
Thoughts mask our choice in a different way from our feelings. When we act based on what we should do, must do, or have to do, what we can’t do, what others will say, what is “rational and reasonable” or “appropriate,” we are linking our actions to something that is fundamentally external to us. Feelings compel us from within, while thoughts compel us from without. The reason this is of such vital importance to me is that freedom is about choosing rather than being compelled. Choice is always internal: we may, and often will, take into consideration the effect of our actions and choices on others. Still, there is a world of difference between believing we have to do something and choosing it based on what’s important to us underneath the “have to.”
Indeed, our thoughts contain information about what is important to us, and in that way, they too are expressions of our needs. They usually lack the vibrancy of feelings, the sense of being alive, whether happily or not, in the experience of the feeling. They appear to be more “in control” and therefore give us a sense of being more at choice than when we act based on feelings.
Part of what I love about connecting with myself at the level of needs rather than feelings or thoughts is that I then feel both the vibrancy of life that comes from being internally connected and the sense of clear choice that comes from knowing what’s important.
While feelings and thoughts give us the illusion of choice, habits are recognized by most of us as lacking choice. As a result, when people begin the practice of learning to connect with their needs, they easily fall into judging their habits. I can’t imagine that any positive change can emerge from self-judgment rather than from understanding the needs the habits aim to serve and finding choice in how to attend to them.
Part of the difficulty with transforming habits into choice is that we often are not even aware of taking an action based on a habit. It’s only at other times, away from the action, that we may become aware that we acted based on a habit. Those are also the times we are most likely to judge ourselves for habitual behavior. What makes it even more challenging is that finding the needs that give rise to the habit requires deep sleuthing because the habits were formed in the past, when specific actions may have been powerful strategies to meet certain needs, and those very same strategies may no longer attend to those needs.
Habits, by their nature, are designed to relieve us from having to choose freshly each time, so it’s not likely to be easy to regain choice. This is where compassion for self is essential. It’s only when we have sufficient tenderness toward how hard changing habits can be that we can create a different motivation for the process of change itself: instead of being motivated by “should” thinking, we can find the needs that lead us to want to engage with the habit.
Often, for me, these are freedom and authenticity, which are powerful motivators. They may or may not be the same for others who are reading this. Embracing all our needs in relation to our habits may shift the emotional quality of trying to make a change, for example, from urgency to calm resolve. This grounding can help us mourn any unmet needs that the habits lead to, envision other strategies to meet as many needs as we can, and develop clear requests of ourselves to support the desired change.
I cannot stress enough how critical it is to reach full connection with the needs that lead us to choose the habitual behavior. This connection is essential for making change that is grounded in self-compassion. Without this quality, we cannot have sufficient internal cooperation, and the attempt to change is likely to be a self-demand that will recreate internal resistance to the change.
Impulse and Intuition
The final contender I am aware of for being a primary motivator is impulse. Like habits, impulses are recognized as lacking choice and are therefore judged. Contrary to habits, though, impulses appear as “natural” and full of life. Sometimes, especially when we have been enslaved by habits and painful thought patterns, responding to our impulses and acting on them can seem like a welcome relief. They can give us the illusion of coming back to ourselves.
I was helped by a conversation with a wise friend who said that he never uses the category “natural.” We have been raised, for so many millennia, in ways that curb and transform whatever our “nature” is, that none of us can truly know what is or isn’t natural. Instead, he makes a distinction between what is spontaneous and what is deliberate. What he calls deliberate is what I refer to as conscious choice.
Clearly, impulses are completely spontaneous, and yet they may not necessarily be related to what we truly want. Our impulses can arise for so many reasons, and by themselves, we have no clear way to assess their capacity to fulfill needs.
Instead, I have been aiming to develop an inner capacity to distinguish impulse from intuition. I wish I could put this difference into clear and learnable steps. All I know to say is that intuition seems to come from a different internal place, and doesn’t have the force of an impulse. Mine tends to be soft and clear. Just noticing it provides some inner connection, some release, and clarity. An impulse, like a feeling, has a quality of propelling us to action. I don’t have a similar experience with intuition. Often, its voice is soft and requires careful attention to discern what is being said. For myself, I honor and cherish my intuition, recognizing it as a source of wisdom, direct access to what I want without the painstaking effort of discerning what my needs are.
How Can We Bring More Consciousness?
I started writing this with a question about what is it that motivates us, and I soon realized that I don’t find it satisfying enough to describe and understand. I always feel a “so what?” attached to my explorations. I am interested in contributing to action, to a life of more fulfillment for all of us. In the context of motivation, this leads me to focus on how to discern true choice, how to know what I truly want, how to refine my capacity to choose how to respond to life.
In summary, then, I look at motivation as a set of needs that inform, with more or less awareness, the feelings and thoughts we have, the habits that rule us, and the impulses that drive us. Clearly, this exploration leads to what is already said by so many: let’s slow down before acting.
Slowing down allows us to translate and listen internally. It allows us to ask ourselves what we want, regardless of what feelings we have and what thoughts and habits run through us. It allows us to question our impulses and distinguish them from our intuitive knowing.
I also have a conjecture that I am interested in continuing to explore and invite you to explore with me. Slowing down, I intuit, can also be useful in allowing us to notice our current feelings before taking the action. We can, at least, notice whether we have pleasurable feelings or not. I have a guess that if the feelings are pleasurable it might mean that the prospect of taking the action is meeting needs, which bodes well for taking the action. If the feelings are not, then I would take that as a cue to look more deeply into the action and see if we really want to take it.
As we deepen in our understanding that all our actions are expressions of our needs, as we find more choice about which needs we focus on, which strategies we employ to attend to them, and which other needs might not be met, we transcend the legacy of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness. Doing this, we will, individually, have more fulfilling lives, and, collectively, attend to more needs, for humans, and for all life.