What’s Your Motivation?

January 1, 2019

My cousin asked a question at a family gathering a few days ago that I’ve been chewing on ever since.

A crowd of us were decompressing in the den at the end of a long festive day when she challenged us to share not our New Year’s resolutions, but the motivations behind them.

In other words: Why do we want what we want?

It was an excellent conversation starter, but one we struggled to wrap our heads around.

Why? I think we tend to fill our lives with lots of distractions to avoid having to answer this question. We don’t want to think too hard, or probe too deeply, or know ourselves too well to ponder the fears, insecurities and fragilities that drive our yearnings. 

Say our resolution is to lose weight, for instance. Well, why? The most obvious answer is self-improvement. But my cousin’s question challenged us to think deeper. How exactly do we equate weight loss with being a better version of ourselves? How do we want to be different as a person — or to be perceived differently by the world — depending on a number on the scale?

For instance, if it’s attractiveness we’re after, why might that be? Do our insecurities feed a deep-seated need for societal approval, for validation that we conform to conventional norms? Do we value ourselves differently — or fear that others do — based on the size of our jeans?  

If you opt for a loftier reason to lose weight— say, to improve your health — well, that begs a whole new set of questions. If the underlying goal of improved health is to hold disability or dependency at bay, the next layer of the onion is asking if we can we retain our sense of self if our usefulness falters. If what we’re trying to hold at bay is death, then, ouch, do we really want to ponder our mortality?

Other common resolutions hold the potential for just as much self-reflection. Whether you want more love, more money, more time, more travel, more whatever, I think drilling down deeply enough about your motivations begins to reveal facets of ourselves that we may be richer for facing. Even the most altruistic resolutions — committing more resources to charity, for instance — can make us squirmy if we think too hard about what voids we’re trying to fill in our lives or what impression we’re trying to make.

Does this mean I think resolutions are futile or ridiculous? Of course not. Committing to random acts of kindness, for example, can have nothing but good results. But I also think that the better we know ourselves — and the more willing we are to ask hard questions and perhaps challenge long-held assumptions — the more likely we are to persevere in our quest for growth. We’ll be guided by insight and self-awareness rather than by superficial indicators of some behavioral change. Knowing why we want what we want is like knowing your destination when you set off on a journey — even if you feel overwhelmed by the twists and turns along the way.

When Socrates posited that the unexamined life is not worth living, I think he was on to something.

And so was my cousin.

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© 2019 Christine Hurley Deriso