Do I Need Abuse to Be Motivated?

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Reader’s Question

As a child I had a very verbally abusive father. Because of his control issues I rebelled and therefore excelled at everything I ever tried to do, from grades to sports to music. I’ve been to counseling in the past and now that I seem to have worked through my issues, I have no desire to prove anything. Now I’ve been headed in the opposite direction. I have gained tons of weight, am tired all the time and if not for work would rarely leave the couch. What is wrong with me that I need someone to treat me like dirt to motivate me? On some level does that mean I like the abuse? What can I do to get my drive back?

Psychologist’s Reply

First, I commend you for sticking with counseling to the point that you feel like it helped you resolve problematic issues from your past. It sounds as though you would agree that being driven by a need to prove a parent wrong is probably not the most satisfying way to live one’s own life. Having done so, however, certainly does not mean that you’re a masochist who enjoys abuse. If that desire to rebel provided the motivation for your pursuits, and it is now gone, it makes sense that you may feel adrift, lacking a known source of wind pushing your sails.

We humans all need meaning and structure in our lives. For many people around the world, meaning and structure equate to mere survival. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have our basic needs met with relatively little effort, we have to find other meaning or reasons to be motivated to pursue goals (which then provide structure through the steps necessary to make progress toward our goals). There is no easy or universal answer to what meanings you may find motivating, but you may choose to ask yourself particular questions:

  • Who and what do I find important?
  • What activities are worthy of my limited time?
  • What kinds of differences do I wish to make in the world?

Don’t be surprised, or discouraged, if you don’t have ready-made or satisfying answers to those kinds of difficult questions. Often the answers emerge through experiences, especially those that focus on others and the larger world. Solid research in psychology points to the fact that people who volunteer more tend to report being happier and more satisfied with life than people who don’t. Of course one possibility is that the happiest, most satisfied people are simply more likely to volunteer. However, some research has involved randomly assigning people to do nice things for others, and those acts of kindness tend to produce improvements in the moods of the do-gooders. There are several reasons why helping others is liable to make us feel better, and volunteering to help those who are less fortunate may be a good place to start your exploration of meaning and purpose.

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Last, from your description, it is worth considering whether you’re experiencing an episode of depression. The apathy, low energy, and weight gain are among the list of classic symptoms. Regardless of whether a person’s depression “makes sense” given that person’s circumstances, depression makes it more difficult to do the things that would help both the life circumstances and the person’s mood. Fortunately we live in an era in which we have access to effective treatments, and it may be worth considering one of the many medications available. The goal of such treatment would be to help alleviate the dark cloud that has you stuck on the sofa so that you can begin exploring a life built on your interests and freely chosen goals (and thereby improve your mood). You’ve done the difficult work of liberating yourself from the effects of your childhood abuse. Now it’s time to find those things that attract you and excite you rather than push you to achieve.

(Editor’s Note: Changes in weight and persistent tiredness may also warrant a visit to the family physician to exclude other potential causes.)

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