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May 11

Oh no, I’m Motivated By Fear!

fear based motivation 5

Now that I’m (mostly) successfully managing my anxiety, everything should be great forever… right?!

Well, no.

Obviously life isn’t magically perfect. (Though of course “less anxiety” is a huge improvement!)

This is fine. I never expected perfection.

But something else I didn’t expect was that managing anxiety better could itself cause problems.

You see, I’ve recently realised that I’ve spent most of my life being unconsciously motivated by fear. Fear of failure, fear of stagnation, fear of losing everything, fear of judgement… you name it!

Inner critic: Fear of elaborate cave systems?

Er, no. Not that one. But (some of) these fears fuelled me through school, university and then into my career. And I never noticed.

I’ve always thought of myself as quite driven. When I decide to do something, it usually gets done. Or I find a genuinely good reason not to.

So I’ve been surprised to find that this drive has diminished lately. I think I can explain why with some work-of-art diagrams.

Whenever we try to pass any obstacle, we need a certain amount of motivation, proportional to the size of the obstacle:

fear based motivation 1

This motivation has to come from somewhere. When I was writing Walking on Custard, I was motivated by the fear of failing to finish. (Naturally, part of me WANTED to write it, but a huge part of the will to fight to the end came out of that fear.)

I wouldn’t say that I was entirely fear-motivated, but there was probably enough fear to pass the obstacle without needing anything else:

fear based motivation 2

But… these days I am MUCH more practised at handling fear. And it feels like there’s a gaping hole where my motivation used to be.

Apparently, I’ve gotten too good at taking my own advice – I’m happily accepting my fears, allowing them to be, and watching them disappear. Meanwhile, I haven’t quite replaced my old motivation fuel with anything else.

It seems my positive sources of motivation are too tiny to get me to pass my current obstacles. I’m getting work done, but it feels as if I’m repeatedly slamming my face into a wall.

Inner critic: Which also explains many other things about your face.

At the risk of childishly arguing with a disembodied inner voice… at least I’ve got a face!

Anyway, I suspect my current motivation is a bit like this:

fear based motivation 4

It’s not that I’m NOT motivated. It’s just that my years of using fear to provide an extra motivational boost have caused my metaphorical muscles to be weaker than they should be.

So, what to do about this?

Magnify the positives

I need to tap into my other forms of motivation. Off the top of my head, I want: Creative satisfaction, financial rewards (let’s say at least enough to eat, and ideally more), social acclaim, variety, surprise… and to experience the human emotion of ‘joy’.

Now that I’ve written that list down, I can see that it ought to be enough to plug my motivation gap. So what’s the problem?

I think it’s simply that tapping into these things isn’t as instinctive – or habitual – as anxiety was for me.

I never had to TRY to be motivated by fear, because anxiety was constantly there. But I need to put in some effort to connect with my positive sources of motivation.

Eventually, I’m sure these positive motivations can become as ingrained as fear used to be.

Perhaps after a few years I will attain an all-pervading air of creativity and joy (though I sort of hope not, it sounds like that would make me highly annoying to be around).

Inner critic: Yo-

Shut up, inner critic.

Of course, fear-based motivation is never going to entirely disappear. And it probably shouldn’t – a little anxiety is often an appropriate human response to whatever’s happening.

But hopefully I can learn to motivate myself with an appropriate balance of positives and negatives:

fear based motivation 3

And if not, at least I’m feeling relaxed about it.

What motivates you the most? Share in the comments!


No stick figures or cartoon walls were harmed in the production of this post.

Don’t forget to watch my TED talk, if you haven’t already!

Check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores anxiety and happiness through embarrassing real-life stories, fantasy fiction, thought-provoking discussion and terribly-drawn doodles.

Like us on Facebook, for more thoughts on happiness.

Read the whole series on Anxiety here.

3 comments

  1. Jesse

    Ha, I like your style, and how it pervades this blog/website :)! One of my strongest motivations is the urge to explore. I often really want to know what is around a real or virtual corner, and will do whatever it takes to get me there. This has its advantages and disadvantages. Advantage: I know almost all beautiful spots that can be reached by bicycle within a 12 mile radius. Disadvantage: every place within a 12 mile radius now bores me slightly. Similarly for virtual corners: I have experience with many programming environments and types of software, but would rather dive into a new unknown area than monetize that existing experience.

    Mathematically speaking, this exploration urge can be described using a function f(n) =42 / 10^(n – 1), where 42 — apart from being the answer to life, the universe and everything — is an arbitrary number significantly larger than the average obstacle, and n is the nth time I’m trying to get motivated to do a specific thing. With the exploration urge becoming ten times smaller on each successive instance of doing the same thing, it’s clear that maximizing it involves doing new things all the time. Which would explain my multipotentialite wiring and how I ended up meeting you at the Puttytribe. Nice. Thanks for making me think about this!

  2. Nadia

    Hi,

    I just watched your Ted talk and this will sound lame, but it made me cry a little bit because I related so much. I finally decided to manage my anxiety after 10 years of not doing anything about it and it seems like it’s getting worse and knows I’m trying to get rid of it.. if that makes sense. I am also in a marriage and family therapy program and am so aware now of all the thoughts I am having and how negative my reactions are and how this has become a catalyst for my anxiety. Overall, thank you for sharing your story. It really helps to know that there are other people out there who can relate to what I am going through as well.

  3. Neil Hughes

    Not lame at all, Nadia. I’m so glad it resonated with you and helped you to remember you’re not alone – that was definitely part of my hope for the talk 🙂 I’m glad you’re working on your thoughts and changing your patterns, I hope you can work through the anxiety. I didn’t work on mine for decades either, but I’m so glad I’ve put in the effort now, it’s definitely easier to cope with today than in the past.

    Thank you so much for your comment, it means so much to me to hear your story.

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