I once heard that people are more motivated by pain than pleasure and in many instances I believe this to be true. Pain provides us with the natural survival instinct to escape and can often get us moving away from a troublesome situation- whether we are in physical danger or suffering with emotional pain. Pleasure however is something that we move towards rather than away from, so a different kind of motivation is required. It is often easier to put up with some mild discomfort than to step and take the action required to make life really rewarding and worthwhile. After all, taking action requires effort, planning, thinking and energy. When this is lacking, it could be said that a person is experiencing a lack of motivation.

When a person comes to see me in my therapy practice with a problem with their motivation, there is usually a pain or pleasure increase that must take place. There is sometimes a misconception that “therapy” is a bit fluffy. That a person gets to come in and wallow in their problem and talk a lot about it until they have managed to excuse themselves for having the problem in the first place. Or that their therapist will gently change them until they effortlessly end up doing all of the things that they didn’t enjoy before and have always wanted to change about themselves. People who have seen my photo on my website before meeting me often think that I will be that kind of fluffy therapist because I look like a kind lady. They quickly realise that they are wrong about this!

Yes it is always a good idea for a therapist to ham up the pleasure or reward of doing something to motivate a person to do it. But the chances are they know about this pleasure already and it has not provided them with enough leverage to do anything about it. But pain will usually get them moving. If it does not, you may have to question how badly it is that they want to achieve their goal or change, or consider any other emotional attachments that are working as pay-offs in their current stuck state.

Recently a young man came to see me because he wanted to stop smoking. During the consultation I was asking him some questions that are designed to get him into a really positive and motivated state. One of the questions I asked was “What do you hate about smoking?” and he replied “I hate that it makes my teeth yellow.” I said “Your teeth are the most yellow teeth I have seen in a long time and you are very young. They would not have gone that yellow had you not have been smoking all this time. Plus you stink. I know most people who smoke smell of cigarettes smell but you really stink.” The poor man was devastated by what I had said (it was all true, I wasn’t lying about any of it for dramatic effect) he said “I knew you were going to be hard on me and I know I need to hear it but I hadn’t expected you to say that!” I told him “I’d be doing you no favours by playing down this problem. You stink and your teeth are yellow, that’s the truth of it. You’ll be a whole lot more attractive once you’ve stopped smoking yourself to death.” Thus I provided him with some pain, and pleasure, and then more pain again. I was particularly worried about this man as he had tried to stop many times before using more conventional methods but we did the session (just one) and he text me 4 weeks later saying that he had not touched another cigarette since our session and was feeling great.

By Gemma Bailey