Summer is a time when toddlers warm one’s heart as they scale steps, run away from parents, and insist on what they want, period! Will and motivation are the same, and they start very young. Like lambs who get to their feet within minutes of brith, if we didn’t have strong will, we would not exist. It’s built into our mammalian brain from birth, if not before.
So, when motivation is lacking or our client can’t find their “passion,” we need to look deep into the mental apparatus to understand why and what to do about it. That’s what this post is about. It builds on TIFT #24, which explains the neurophysiology of motivation. This is clinical. Let’s look at how will and motivation develop and how different eras influence the adult experience of being motivated or not.
Three Developmental Eras
The will of toddlers has its own characteristics. We can be alert to the same characteristics, apparent or missing, in out adult clients. Toddlers are passionate. They have a powerful drive towards their aims and powerful disappointment when thwarted. Those aims are presumably shaped by evolution to focus on interpersonal connection and on growth, that is, fulfilling their own potential. Conditions that block those aims have predictable effects. Attempts at surmounting ongoing frustration of basic aims typically leads to schemas we recognize as attachment problems and personality pathology. Later, they can become serious handicaps. They may turn dysfunctional because of limitations existing at the time they were invented or because the adult world is far different from the unhealthy environment they were designed to manage. On the other hand, skills that do work tend to create a cycle of positive expectation and success. This early period likely affects resilience, too, the ability to recover after a setback.
The next critical period is the arrival of the conscience, that internal system of self-regulation, based on values, attitudes, ideals, and prohibitions, leading to feelings of pride, shame, and guilt. Those feelings, unique in that they always involve judgment, do much to shape behavior in the direction of social belonging. When survival demands adoption of negative attitudes toward the self, shame dampens optimism and suppresses positive behavior. The need for social survival is turned against the instinct for self-actualization. Self-directed negativity has the sad effect of turning positive will and motivation into depression.
Perhaps the most specifically relevant developmental time for motivation is the one when children begin to appreciate fairy tales. Cognitive development around age 5-6 brings the ability to grasp the arc of time and the cycle of life. That development ushers in appreciation of stories that begin with “once upon a time,” and end with “forever after.” With this new ability comes a revolution in coping. Where younger children have to solve problems by altering present reality, for example picturing themselves as super heroes, the older child can now leave the present as it is and solve problems in the future. “Someday I will…” This ability to picture the future gives a huge boost to reality testing as well as combining with the drive towards self-fulfillment to initiate the creation of the first version of a life plan. When we do have a “passion” it usually derives from that era.
When 5 and 6 year-old plans are blocked, whether from outside or from within by the values of the conscience, two consequences stand out. First, the plan becomes frozen in time, no longer subject to growth and shaping by life. Such plans or life goals continue to show the simplicity and absoluteness of five or six-year-old cognition. The second consequence is that, under pressure of shame, the plan “goes underground,” and waits for a chance at fulfillment. Those chances can and do appear far into adulthood. A sudden push for fulfillment of the plan may first appear later in life, triggered by a sense that the window of possibility is beginning to close. Perhaps this is one of the causes of the current rise in late-life divorces. Another important trigger is hope. A therapeutic relationship with its new optimism may be the signal that it’s time to take the risk of hope.
Therapy When Motivation Seems Lacking
In adult therapy, when clients complain of a lack of motivation, I think statistics would show that the first place to look is not their genes, but in unseen disappointment that a hidden, but strongly held life plan has been crushed. As described in TIFT #24, this disappointment equates to biological depression as the dopamine-driven SEEKING system is de-powered. That still doesn’t mean the only solution is a biological intervention. The most powerful and specific remedy may be to work with the deep sense of loss and hopelessness that is causing the problem. Therapy will need to invite and encourage the inner six-year-old back to dialog and hope. As trust builds, gentle inquiry can bring to light plans and wishes that have been suppressed. Then we will begin to learn about shameful goals the client has tried, without success, to relinquish. Recovering old wishes is challenging. Not only have they become sources of shame due to their immaturity, but it will feel risky to re-embrace them, lest they again be crushed.
Recovering these wishes is a delicate operation and will require bending over backwards to respect wishes that have long been dormant and still bear the stamp of immaturity. Like spring flowers, as the client dares again to experience passion, the wishes will remain tender. With time and support they can become strong enough to withstand the buffeting of reality, leading to the old plan evolving into a fit with adult life.
Are there clients who just don’t have a “passion?” Probably yes. Those whose mid-childhood has been preoccupied with survival may never have developed a life plan. All their motivation may be tied up with safety and getting along. On the surface, all they aspire to is being “left alone.” On the other hand, dull and dutiful aims representing compromise for survival may still be covering up a deeper layer where a treasure chest of passion is still hidden.
When exploring lost or missing passion, the main challenge is shame set off by the wish itself or by its immaturity. I can’t emphasize enough the need to model an attitude of love and admiration for the indominable five or-six-year old spirit that potentially resides within all of us and refuses to give up on fulfillment of life's promises. Just as we have tenderness towards a young child’s answer to the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We need to see the childlike strength locked deep in the mind of our adult client, struggling to re-emerge and, at last, to seek fulfillment in life.
Jeffery Smith MD
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