carrot stick method

Hey! The way you’re trying to motivate yourself: totally not working

We all know the “hey, look, I’m not doing that thing I said I’d do” feeling pretty well. And yeah, it’s not fun. When that sinking feeling shows up, you start looking for something that you think will “motivate” you. Something to push you harder so you can get in gear and get that thing done already.

Unfortunately, you (and by you I mean probably you but really, uh, me and everyone else I know) tend to choose ways to motivate yourself that aren’t very good for you. Even worse, it might sorta kinda feel like they work, so you keep using them.

I’m talking about the way you goad yourself with some complicated system of rewards or punishments. Or torture yourself with the “Oh, I just work well under pressure so I intentionally create stress to light a fire under my big old behind” thing.

Two good examples of how this can (not) work, taken directly from people I work with:

Smart, capable woman. Went to great lengths to remove all distractions and fun from her house/life in order to devote the weekend to a project. Which just increased the frustration when the project still just didn’t budge. In fact, it felt like being in prison, but even worse since it was a prison that she’d made for herself. Oy.

Hardworking guy working even harder towards a “reward” vacation he’d promised himself which seems farther and farther away. He just never feels like he’d earned it. To make himself feel better he gives himself mini-rewards, which then trigger the whole guilt cycle again. Oh no! Aaaaargh. Exactly.

Why carrot-stick-ing it is a seriously bad idea

All carrot. All stick. Alternating carrot and stick. There’s a big problem with all of these scenarios. Whether you’re meting out reward or punishment to yourself, it always comes back to the same question:

Do you really want your relationship to yourself to be one where you rule over yourself? Where one part of you gets to boss the other part around?

Whether you’re ruling over yourself with an iron hand or with cookies, it’s still a pretty screwed-up power dynamic. It’s also one that springs naturally from your own life, mirroring past relationships. It’s essentially a parent-child relationship, or teacher-student, boss-employee … you get the idea.

Thing is, though, you’re your own person now, which means that you’re allowed to start being a companion to yourself and not a cranky whip-cracking (and/or cookie-bribing) master.

What would someone who really, really, really liked you do?

If you think about it, all that finger-wagging and keeping yourself in from recess is a surefire way to make sure you resent yourself, sabotage yourself and fight with yourself. This is terrible for motivation — especially since you can’t get much done when you’re stuck in a big pile of internal resistance.

Same goes for trying to impress yourself by being the best student or the best kid so you’ll get a pat on the head. Or trying to meet your needs with toys.

When you get right down to it, self-mastery is just kinda mean. On the other hand, self-friendship — the cheesy-sounding process of learning how to treat yourself mindfully and with compassion — is good stuff. Having access to things like warmth, respect and love is not only more pleasant, but gets you the results faster. It works.

What would it feel like to be able to drop the reward-punishment game? Or maybe a better question is how does it feel to be pushed around when what you’re needing is attention and support? What you would do if your own best friend were hurting?

Dangle a carrot in front of her? Beat him with a whip? Right. I know.

So what’s left?

Sometimes you want to treat yourself like a true friend. Part of you does actually want to be that compassionate, kind person to yourself — you just don’t know how to do it without losing control. Or you don’t want to find out, because what if it’s hard, what if it’s embarrassing, what if you just don’t feel like you deserve to actually be nice to yourself, etc.?

Luckily, you’re not going to have to cheer yourself along like a hyperactive motivational speaker. Or affirm into a mirror that you’re the bestest and the smartest. Because that would be ridiculous.

Three steps, just to get started with.

The three steps (being an amazingly great friend to yourself)

Step 1: Observe

Notice where you’re at. Check in. A really great friend wouldn’t rush right in with a pile of judgments and start beating on you with a guilt-stick. That really great friend would just be concerned about figuring out how you *feel* about the whole thing.

Step 2: Let it be what it is for now

A true friend is not going to think it’s stupid that you’re, say, really, really angry. That kind of friend is also not going to be impressed by it. You are the most important person in their whole life, and if that’s what you’re feeling, that’s what you’re feeling.

This great friend is going to acknowledge what you feel and let you feel it. In fact, your friend will think that whatever you’re feeling is understandable and perfectly justifiable.

Step 3: Find out what you need

That really great friend cares about you deeply. All your really great friend wants to know now is what do *you* need? Not how to fix it, not what you did wrong or where you messed up, but what you need and how you need it.

Bottom line: self-mastery is just not a healthy or sustainable way to have a relationship with yourself. If you ever want to be able to relax — a little or a lot –eventually you’re going to have to work on this friendship thing.

And one little caveat for the road

It sounds obvious and still it’s the first thing that everyone forgets. Forcing compassion = not very compassionate.

Guilting yourself into being a good friend to yourself is that same old self-mastery thing again. It’s very, very easy to slide into “Aargh, I “should” be nicer to myself but actually I’m a terrible person! Oh no! I’m doing it again. Why can’t I just be more freaking compassionate?” mode.

But if you aren’t ready to be nice to yourself, that’s where you are. It’s temporary. No need to turn kindness into another should. It will show up eventually when you’re ready for it. Baby steps are fine. There’s no rush. It’s perfectly okay to find out what’s the nicest thing you can stand right now and leave it at that. That’s where I’d leave it.

The Fluent Self