Dear Therapist:

I struggle a lot with motivation. I have studied a lot of psychology on my own and have a good understanding of how to deal with negative emotions. I can deal with sadness and anxiety and stop them from interfering with my life but I still just don't feel energized and motivated. It is easy for people to tell me that I should "just do it" but I think that emotions are necessary for us to be driven and I just don't seem to have that switch. Do you think that if someone is struggling with ​motivation they must have unresolved anxiety or depression? Or, is motivation a separate issue that needs to be dealt with? Do some people just not feel motivated or is there a way to activate that? Your thoughts will be greatly appreciated. Thank you



Whenever someone asks me about motivation, laziness, disinterest, and the like, I have two questions. The first question is what the particular term means to the person. Assuming that the answer to this question points in the direction of some sort of problematic issue, the second relates to the source of the issue.

For instance, when someone tells me that they are lazy by nature, I first help them to determine their definition of “lazy.” Is laziness the lack of motivation to achieve their own goals? Other people’s goals? If their laziness relates to their own goals, are these goals realistic, or does the person consider someone lazy if they are not super-achievers, able to juggle everything at once and to achieve everything all the time?

Once the term has been effectively defined, I try and help them figure out whether this (laziness, lack of motivation, etc.) is a problem for them. Do they lie around all day not achieving anything? For instance, are they not looking for a job? Or if they have a job, do they lack the motivation to fulfill their obligations, leading to discharge or other consequences?

If it is clear that lack of motivation is, in fact, a real problem for you, focus should be placed on the internal causes for this lack. You asked whether motivation is inextricably linked to anxiety or depression, or if it is a separate issue to be dealt with on its own. The response to this is complicated. No one can tell you the extent to which lack of motivation relates to anxiety, depression, attention issues, fear of failure, social ineptitude—or low self-esteem, which is closely related to these and many other issues.

The human mind is extremely complex, and we will never come close to fully comprehending the intricacies of its operations and associations. I can only tell you that if motivation is a real problem for you, it is related to something—or rather things—within your thoughts and emotions. In the human mind, there is nothing that stands alone. This works in a reciprocal fashion. Just as the identified problem has an underlying cause, this cause is typically bolstered by the identified problem.

For example, let’s imagine that you have a conscious fear of success (less uncommon than you might think). This is driven by your less conscious fear of failure. Since you are afraid of failure, you avoid attempting to succeed for fear of failing—leading to the belief that your true fear is of success. Your underlying fear of failure is caused by low self-esteem. This, in turn, is triggered by childhood feelings of insecurity caused by bullying and social isolation. Since you tend to avoid trying to achieve your objectives, you label yourself as unmotivated.

In this example, your identified problem is lack of motivation. However, the real issues reside in your unconscious mind. These issues, along with the resultant lack of motivation and achievement, further reinforce the unconscious issues, leading to feelings of anxiety and depression. The anxiety and depression sap you of energy, making it yet more difficult for you to self-motivate (in addition to making it more difficult for you to focus).

This string of self-perpetuating and reciprocal factors may seem a bit far-fetched. However, this is a typical, common process. In fact, I only touched on the obvious factors. I also did not delve into specifics. We all engage in these conscious-unconscious processes on a regular basis. Some of us consider this to be normal (which, in a general sense, it is). Some agonize over normal thought processes, while others ignore problematic issues. The goal is to accept those thought processes that are normal, and to work on those that are truly indicative of a problem.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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