Self-Motivate Successfully

If your main goal is to avoid criticism, it’s time to find a better motivation.

Posted Feb 02, 2015

Are you, first and foremost, highly responsible and exceedingly conscientious about fulfilling responsibilities? Or, are you more likely to search and reach for dreams that bubble up from inside? According to psychologist Tony Higgins, people are motivated toward achieving their goals in one of these two ways – and each has important ramifications related to your success and happiness.

Many people motivate themselves with what Higgins calls an ought self-guide. It focuses on duties, responsibilities, safety, and security. It is also driven by rules and by the perceptions of others. Because of a vigilance to avoid problems, the ought self-guide is unfortunately limited in the possibilities for achieving goals. In addition, people who use this self-guide are often concerned with falling short; leaving them to feel emotions such as anxiety, guilt and fear.

Unfortunately, this is a common problem. For instance, consider Peter. He was a young man who valued his integrity, but found himself in an ethically questionable – though lucrative – corporate job. He was highly aware that family (especially his father-in-law) expected him to continue climbing the corporate ladder; but less conscious of just how distressed he was by the moral dilemmas he regularly faced. Unfortunately (or not), Peter developed disabling anxiety. Only by facing his conflict was he finally able to risk upsetting others and embrace his values by taking a different job.

If you relate to the dilemmas of having an ought self-guide, you (like Peter) probably live much of your life in a state of anxiety and distress. It’s the way you avoid difficulties and motivate yourself to do better. It’s important to understand that you can be successful without suffering emotionally like this.

People who have an ought self-guide generally think that they are successful (to whatever degree they are successful) because of their self-criticism, fear of criticism by others, and focus on making sure they protect themselves from attack. However, what they fail to realize is that this way of thinking also weighs them down by making them relate to themselves in a negative way. They would do better by dropping those weights and grabbing onto uplifting dreams of achievement.

People who are most successful professionally and personally tend to focus on their aspirations, pursue a desire to accomplish, and strive for well-being. Higgins labeled this an ideal self-guide. While creating and being open to new possibilities, people with this guide also eagerly attend to positive outcomes from their efforts. And, when they do attain their goals, they enjoy that, too.  There are downsides to the ideal self-guide: if their desires for themselves include unrealistic expectations, they are at risk for strong and persistent feelings of dejection.

People with an ideal self-guide generally feel happier and emotionally stronger than those with an ought self-guide. You can build this more positive perspective within yourself by choosing to move in that direction.

Take time each day to consider your goals, aspirations, and desire for well-being. Let yourself daydream about this.

Attend to your feelings of interest and excitement as they arise. These feelings are inherently engaging; they make you want to try harder and do well. And, they help you to feel that you are living a meaningful life. 

Notice your fears of failure and criticism. While trying to stay ahead of your fears may motivate you to work hard – much like running away from a hungry tiger – it never feels good… except maybe the relief you feel when you realize you didn’t get eaten alive. After acknowledging your fears – don’t bother trying to ignore the man-eating tiger – you can choose to return your attention to your interest or dream; to re-engage in what you really want to be doing.

Remember: Living your values and interests is the only way that you can ever be truly happy. It feels good to do and inherently motivates you to forge on toward success.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.

Insecure in Love

Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.

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