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Forget Feelings, Think Motivation

What are your emotions telling you to do?

Emotions move us. The word, "emotion," derived from the Latin, literally means "to move." The ancients believed that emotions move behavior; in modern times we say they motivate behavior. They energize us to do things by sending powerful chemical signals to the muscles and organs of the body.

The only behaviors that emotions do not motivate are habits, such as tying your shoes or biting your nails or flopping down on your living room sofa without stopping to look. Because habits are processed in the brain in short-hand codes that consume little mental energy, no emotions are necessary to motivate habituated behavior - they run on automatic pilot. Emotions, mostly subtle or unconscious, prepare us to do almost everything else.

Whether subtle or intense, conscious or unconscious, overt or covert, all emotions have one of three motivations:


In approach motivation, you want to get more of something, experience more, discover more, learn more, or appreciate more. Typical approach emotions are interest, enjoyment, compassion, trust, and love. Common approach behaviors are learning, encouraging, relating, negotiating, cooperating, pleasing, delighting, influencing, guiding, setting limits, and protecting. Approach always increases the value of the person or thing you approach.

In avoid motivation, you want to get away from something - you lower its value and worthiness of your attention. Common avoid behaviors are ignoring, rejecting, withdrawing, looking down on, dismissing.

In attack motivation, you want to devalue, insult, criticize, undermine, harm, coerce, dominate, incapacitate, or destroy. Attack emotions are anger, hatred, contempt, and disgust. Characteristic attack behaviors are demanding, manipulating, dominating, coercing, threatening, bullying, harming, and abusing.

Motivations vs. Goals and Intentions
Motivations are basic, simple, and straightforward, while goals and intentions are complicated and often self-deceptive. For instance, parents often get confused about discipline of their children. Their usual goal is to teach their children cooperation and respect. But if they administer the discipline in anger, their motivation will be attack. Children, like the rest of us, respond to behavioral motivations, not to goals and intentions. The angry disciplinarian will likely invoke a response of submission, fear, rebellion, or resentment, rather than cooperation, respect, or love.

Feelings are the conscious and most misunderstood component of emotions. In contrast to the simplicity of basic motivation, feelings are complex, ever-changing, and subject to moods (like depression), sensations (like warmth, cold, pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort), and physiological states (like hunger and tiredness). All these can feel like emotions, and that is why people often give psychological and relationship meaning to anything that feels uncomfortable. Discomfort seems close enough to negative emotions to keep us hopelessly confused, as long as we focus on feelings instead of motivations.

In the mammalian organism, feelings are not ends in themselves but a means of getting our attention, so we'll act on the motivation of the present emotion. For instance, if you're interested in something but don't approach it, the usually unconscious emotion of interest starts to feel like anticipation, excitement, a nagging hunch, or anxiety. If you have ignored someone you love and don't approach to kiss and make up, the usually unconscious emotion of guilt will begin to feel like impatience, frustration, anxiety, or depression. If you blame it on your partner, unconscious guilt becomes anger and resentment, as in: "She had it coming!" or "Why should I feel sorry for him?"

When we act on the basic motivation of emotions, we are usually aware of little or no feelings. That's how you can get interested in something, look up at the clock, and notice that several hours have passed, during which you were largely unaware of your feelings. It's also how you can pay no attention to someone you love in avoid motivation and be sincerely surprised when he accuses you of ignoring him, which you were entirely unaware of doing.

Of course, you can become aware of feelings if you reflect on them, but that will often stop the motivation and change the behavior, as well as distort the feeling. For instance, you can probably recall a romantic moment, like walking on the beach or lying in front of a cozy fireplace, when your partner almost ruined it by asking, "What are you feeling right now?" You had to stop sharing interest and enjoyment to think about what it feels like to share interest and enjoyment.

So Many Experiences, So Few Feelings
Exploring feelings may be interesting, but it rarely changes behavior. In fact, obsession with feelings is more likely to get you stuck doing the same thing over and over. By the time we're adults, feelings are just too complex for exploration to be of behavioral benefit. That's because we have, over the course of our lives, associated our limited variety of feelings with thousands of different experiences. For instance, you may have associated feeling shame with your mother's raised eyebrow, your father closing the door to his study, a teacher who made you feel dumb, or the newspaper your boyfriend read while you talked to him. Any of these experiences -- or anything remotely like them -- can trigger confusing "feelings," under the "wrong" circumstances, i.e., when your motivation is weak.

For example, if you are not really interested in learning facts related to a task at work, the look on your boss' face might remind you of your mother's disdain. This association made during low-interest motivation will feel enough like shame to disorganize your thought processes and inhibit your ability to remember the facts. However, if the motivation to learn is strong, i.e., you're really interested in the task, your boss' look will make no difference to you, if you notice it at all. Your mental efforts will be more fruitful applied to creating interest in what you need to do rather than figuring out why you feel distracted.