Motivated by Pain, Pleasure or Sheer Will

Why is it so hard for people to make changes in their lives? Not just to success by reaching a goal, but to even just start change. Most people don’t come into therapy until they are miserable to a level that they can no longer bear. Once some symptoms are alleviated, many stop prematurely because it’s less miserable than before but still not happy.

Most people know what they want and know the things they need to do in their lives but many feel like they’re not able, ready or capable.

We are creatures of habit, motivated by either pain or pleasure, but also easily defaulting to the lazy path of least resistance. If you are too comfortable in this luke warm space you will never really live your life to the fullest but just wade in this pool of passive acceptance.

Pain can initiate action and pleasure can reward motivation but often those states have to be profound to bring about change and make it last. In part, because those states excite the brain and set us into motion. Our dopamine-craving brains seek initial challenge and immediate reward like a drug but when persistence and consistency are required after that chemical surge wanes we are often left with a buzzkill and lack of drive to keep going. Eventually we can give up on pursuing more in our lives altogether.

We are good at being lazy but we are also good at being mildly or even moderately uncomfortable for a long time. If we aren’t incredibly miserable, we might just accept where we are and learn to live with it. This isn’t really living – this is more like giving up. Going with the flow takes little effort and energy but doesn’t get you what you want in life either.

We might not be happy but if we are not quite too miserable or don’t value happiness enough – if we can’t imagine happiness in our lives – we will stay exactly as we are and in whatever state of constant relatively benign misery. Yuck.

We do seek pleasure, we want it, but future pleasure is delayed gratification and does not appeal to our lazy brain that wants fast rewards. We are motivated by extremes – drastic changes from drastic events – motivated by reactivity not proactivity. Extreme rewards can create tremendous action, at least initially. This pleasure principle is a set up though because the reward has to be so magnificent, as extreme as pain, to often bring about change.

When we wait for something critical to happen, a crisis to appear, we will react. Less out of conscious choice and more out of fear or extreme activation.  Out of that comes the potential for incredible change but it’s really hard on the nervous system to be stimulated by that much activation aside from the layers of activation of tolerating years of relative bearable dissatisfaction.

A healthy nervous system supports healthy body and mind…a dysregulated nervous system is the beginning of disease process and so to wait until you have a crisis in mind or body to make change is hard on an already activated nervous system. You can make big changes but not be able to follow through or even enjoy them because of the state of your nervous system.

Think about it. How big does the reward need to be to motivate you? How much more pain or misery do you need to be in to make a change? 

Recognize before it’s critical, before you’re maxed out or scary. What would it be like to tolerate persistence, delayed gratification of moderation to move you into a different place in your life finding your own discipline and motivation to make good choices and stay the course for your goals. Sheer will, with regular, built-in reward along the way. 

This means…

Having a big enough goal that you can tolerate forcing yourself to do the things you don’t want to do, when you least feel like doing them. 

Creating a bigger picture for pleasures – setting up small successes to celebrate along the way and using these nuggets of reinforcement to help you get to long term and huge celebrations at the end. 

No one is going to do it for you. No one is going to want happiness and fulfilment in your life or any of your goals more than you and no one is going to do the work for you.

Decide what you want. Don’t wait. Force yourself and trust it’ll get easier with momentum and that your brain can change from seeking extremes to tolerating moderation to get what you want. Set up rewards. Decide to move in your life at least initially by sheer will and reward that rather than setting your brain up to seek and find only the short term fireworks of temporary pleasure or relief of pain.

Go for the gold – long term, life changing, big goals that will set your life on fire and give you what you deserve to experience in this life. No more passive wading in luke warm pools.

Don’t get comfortable with long term moderate discomfort that you can tolerate. Do it now. 


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