Shoulds and the Paradox of Self-Motivation

by | Oct 12, 2022 | Physician Coaching, Physician Mindfulness

I was coaching a physician recently who was struggling to start an exercise regimen. To protect her anonymity, I’ll call her Jamie.

Jamie had started and stopped exercising many times in the past but had never stuck with it. I could well understand this as she’s a mother of three with a busy career — her days are anything but quiet and full of free time.

Like many, Jamie had put on weight with her pregnancies and struggled to lose it. She also had a family history of diabetes and was worried about the extra weight increasing familial risk.

She’d tried everything from the Whole30 diet to Noom, from working out at her Y to shifting to an elliptical in her basement, and from having her husband push her to keep her accountable to app upon app, but nothing stuck. She just couldn’t get herself to stay motivated, no matter what she tried.

Like many others, Jamie didn’t know why she couldn’t do regular exercise. She just knew that she couldn’t. Having never gotten below an A- in her life, Jamie felt that, with exercise and self-care more generally, she was getting a big fat F.

So, Jamie and I got deep into discussion, and I asked her a few questions to help her understand what was getting in her way. I first asked her to share her thoughts on exercising. Here’s what she said:

  • I should get up at 5:15 every day and get on the elliptical.
  • I should be able to stick to my exercise routine.
  • I should be better at this.
  • I should be like other physician moms who figure out how to fit exercise into their busy lives.

Unfortunately, none of these thoughts improved her ability to sustain an exercise program. Something was still missing. 

Could it be that all these “shoulds” were actually getting in her way?

I’m wondering how you approach making a lifestyle change, developing a new habit, or getting some demanding task crossed off your to-do list. If you’re like me, Jamie, and many others, you may approach the issue by telling yourself that you should make the change. You should improve, you should become a kinder, more efficient, better person, you should just do whatever it is that you’re wanting to do. 

Unfortunately, all this “shoulding” may actually be stealing your motivation, rather than building it. As I discuss in my 2020 book, Everyday Resilience, these inner ‘should’ voices are ones we all have, yet without proper tools and skills, can really erode the inner resilience we all possess. At times, this voice of should can even become one that is punishing, harsh, and shaming, can’t it? It can even creep into our thinking around all kinds of things.

  • I should get out of bed early and get on the exercise bike.
  • I should be able to stick to my diet.
  • I should start meditating.
  • I should be nicer to my spouse.
  • I should be more patient.
  • I should get that work done.

Before you know it, all these shoulds then lead to a whole other level of self-judgment:  

  • What’s wrong with me not getting out of bed early and exercising?
  • Everyone else seems to be able to know how to manage their weight issues, but not me.
  • If I don’t get it together, I’m going to end up a fat diabetic sloth.
  • Why am I so unmotivated? What’s wrong with me that I don’t have the willpower everyone else has?
  • Why can’t I just suck it up and do better?

All of this begs the question: Have your shoulds motivated you? Have they helped you make the changes you want?

There’s a reason why so many of us can answer with a resounding ‘no.’ The fact is that telling ourselves that we should do something takes us away from the intrinsic or internal motivation that is what truly motivates us to do anything. The should takes us to an external source of motivation, one that is less likely to get the job done. The should leaves us trying to motivate ourselves because society says so or your parents told you to or how you think you should be doing something or other. It takes us away from what truly drives us in life — our desires, our passion, and what’s in it for us to take the action we want to take. We may believe that an external entity like money, keeping up appearances, or receiving praise from others will get us there, and they might for a brief while, but rarely in a sustainable way.

Let’s take a deeper dive into what it is that will truly provide the motivation you need. When you think about why all the shoulds actually erode our motivation, you can likely see the answer. After all, we humans tend to do things when there is something in it for us to do so. The old WIFM, or what’s in it for me, is an important truism.

The key is to make sure you’re aligning with your WIFM as opposed to the internalized voice of parents, teachers, and others which actually only serves to tap into our brain’s threat-defense system. Recall that this is the fight/flight/freeze system that our primitive brains developed to protect us from danger. Thank goodness our brains evolved in this way to ensure that our species rose up the evolutionary ladder! But in the modern world, this system is activated by threats of a psychological nature, ones that tell us we’re not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, or, in Jamie’s case, fit enough. And once the threat-defense system is activated, we’re operating in survival mode, small, withdrawn, fearful, and only focused on getting by. All too often, the result is procrastination, distraction, or avoidance.

For true self-motivation, we can go to an important psychological theory. One of the most influential theories on human motivation, in fact, is self-determination theory, which originated from the work of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who published Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior in 1985.

The SDT informs that we tend to be driven by a need to grow and gain fulfillment. One of the core assumptions behind the SDT is that developing mastery over challenges, learning, and growing is essential for our sense of self.

SDT also points to the fact that while we may be temporarily motivated by external rewards (money, prizes, societal messages, recognition or validation by others), internal sources of motivation fuel the most desire and commitment toward our goals. Also, tapping into our intrinsic desire to achieve a goal can be a powerful motivator and keep us going when external rewards aren’t enough. While the idea of intrinsic motivation may seem like a new concept, it’s something we’ve known about for quite some time. Many studies confirm the truth of SDT, bolstering the fact that intrinsically motivated people are more able to reach their goals – resulting in happier and healthier (and more motivated) people.

Tips to self-motivate

Reading this, you may be wondering: what’s the alternative?

SDT helps us understand the true ways we can motivate ourselves. What’s key is getting in touch with the “why” behind the change you want to make. That will take you to your WIFM and help you move forward toward your goal.

When I asked Jamie about her WIFM, she readily identified that exercising was important for her so she could avoid diabetes and have the longevity she wanted to be there for her family. Her WIFM also meant how good it felt to fit into some cool clothes she had worn before giving birth. Instead of beating herself up with a litany of shoulds, when she focused on what was truly in it for her, she felt more of a sense of ease about exercising. In our next coaching session, she proudly told me that she had stayed on her exercise program for the entire prior month, a first for her. Of course, it was still challenging to fit this into her busy days but now she was able to do so.

Since I’m all about pragmatic approaches, here are 5 tips to self-motivate and reach your goals.

    1) Pay attention to the voice of the shoulds. Honing this type of self-awareness is always the first step in effecting any change. And guess what? This type of self-awareness is also known as mindfulness. After all, mindfulness is about getting to know what is going on inside and around us. We pay mindful attention in a kind and friendly way, not by adding more “shoulds” onto the existing pile! Why is mindfulness so important? The simple answer is that it helps us to be more present and aware in our lives. And this can make a huge difference in how we feel and experience both ourselves as well as the world around us.

    2) Now that you’re aware of when the shoulds are present, broaden your awareness by noticing how you feel mentally and physically when you experience them. Do you feel uplifted and excited to move forward? Alternatively, perhaps you experience a sense of dis-ease, a downward sense of gravity that pulls you back toward the shoulds. Get in touch with how different the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation feels to you. Since the latter likely leaves you much more uplifted, this will also contribute to greater motivation.

    3) Now ask yourself: what is in it for me to make this change? What’s important about this? How will it help me? If it’s still unclear, try to identify the consequences of staying in the situation versus making a change. What will happen if you stay? What will happen if you change? Again, focus on what is important about this—not what other people might think or how they will react to your decision, but what’s in it for you. To enliven this, take a few moments to try on the desired state. Just like trying on a new sweater, notice what this will feel like for you. Notice how your body will feel. Perhaps there’s a sense of relief, a release of physical tension. You may also find that you’re feeling lighter, more energetic, or clear in your mind. Perhaps there’s a feeling of confidence, certainty, and freedom.

    4) Replace the should with “I want to because ___”. Fill in your reasons at the end of this sentence. Whenever your mind takes to a should, go back to this key sentence. Make it a mantra for what truly has meaning for you.

    5) Lastly and most importantly, be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. If you fall off your path, avoid the temptation to add more shoulds (and shame) to the situation. Remind yourself that establishing new patterns takes time and the willingness to keep starting anew. Remind yourself that you are an imperfect human amongst other imperfect humans.

    A little self-kindness and self-acceptance go a very long way.

    In conclusion, changing and establishing new habits takes work. Motivating ourselves is something we all have to work toward. But if you want to reach your goals, you’ll motivate yourself by focusing on what’s in it for you to do so. This is the surefire way to build true, lasting, and successful change. With the right combination of factors, it’s more than possible to stay motivated and achieve any goal you may have. 

    Practice these 5 tips and you’ll free yourself from the tyranny of shoulds.  I can almost guarantee that you’ll soon be the one moving forward on whatever goal is truly important to you. The more you practice, the better you will become at creating exactly what it is you desire. And the better you get at creating your desired states, the more successful and happy you will be in life, in every possible way.

    6 FREE Resources To Help You During COVID19 And Beyond.

    1. 14-day meditation series 
    2. Imposter No More PDF
    3. Resilience Book Chapter
    4. Leading In Crisis PDF
    5. Balance To Burnout PDF
    6. Stress-free Charting guide

    Take advantage of one or more of these valuable resources created for clinicians and non-clinicians.