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Blog: Blog2

Learned Helplessness. Lacking Motivation Part 2

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

There are so many feelings and thoughts that go with a lack of motivation, such as frustration, fear, disappointment, and hopelessness. In the first blog, we explored what can cause poor motivation. In this blog, I’d like to focus on some skills you can try to get past poor motivation if this is an issue for you.

One technique I like to look at with people is the learned helplessness experiment. I find thinking about this experiment is helpful if thoughts such as “What’s the point?” and “I have tried so many things and nothing has worked” are common when you notice you have poor motivation. A word of warning; this experiment is very unethical and can be hard to hear about as it was designed before ethics were a thing.

Let’s set the stage for this experiment (I may skip some details to make it more interesting): The researcher had two groups of dogs. One group was placed in a large box with two sides: One side with regular floor, and the other with floor that could be electrified. The second group of dogs were placed in an identical box to the first group, with one exception: There was a barrier in between the two sections of floor meaning the dogs could not cross from one side of the box to the other. The researcher then began the training phase of the experiment, seeing what the dogs would do when the floor was electrified. The researcher noticed that the dogs in the first group would move from the electrified side of the box to the regular floor side to escape the shock, but the second group of dogs couldn’t escape the shock; they had to stand there and endure it. Then the researcher put both groups of dogs into the first box and noticed something interesting: The dogs that previously couldn’t escape the shock did not even try to escape when put in the box without the barrier. They had ‘given up’ in a way, noting that their previous attempts to escape did not work and so ‘why bother trying if nothing will work?’, even though their circumstances had changed and it would work now. I find this is a great analogy for people who feel like they have tried everything and nothing has worked, and they are tired of trying and have no hope things will change. This can be a big factor in motivation, I like to ask clients that identify with the dogs whether they want the dogs to move off the electrified floor? To try something new even if they don’t think it will help? If their answer for this was “yes”, then the same logic applies to them as a person too. Now, brains will often challenge me at this point with thoughts such as “But it wouldn’t work for me” or “I don’t deserve for things to get better for me”. These thoughts can create a barrier to trying new things even after we have challenged the thought that nothing will get better if you keep trying. So I like to make an analogy: If you had a friend in your position feeling the same way you do, and they heard about this experiment and thought it wouldn’t work for them or that they don’t deserve it, what would you think about that? Would you want your friend to try, even if they don’t think it will help or that they deserve it? Do you think it’s ok for them to keep trying?

The answers to these questions also apply to yourself. And typically, my client’s brains will challenge me again, saying why this logic doesn’t apply to them specifically. The brain’s logic seems to make sense in this scenario, but if we examine it a bit closer, we find it doesn’t actually make sense. These are known as Cognitive Distortions in psychology. For example, let’s say we have 100 people in a room with similar thoughts and feelings. This would mean that 99 people in the room would think it was ok for everyone else in the room to try something new. That means for each person, 1% of people think it isn’t ok and 99% of people think it is. If we go just by numbers, then it is ok for everyone in this room to try new things, even if they don’t feel they deserve it.

This is one way I like to challenge unhelpful thoughts that kill motivation to help people get where they want to go in life. Tune in for some more techniques in the future! Estelle Perry


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