Emotions, Motivation, and Your Unconscious Mind

Motivation. Literally, that which impels us to move. That’s how we use the word: the feeling that makes us act—in that order: feeling, then action.

Motivation is also created by action. Ask anyone who has grudgingly started a project only to discover that going through the motions ends in motivation.

You’ve felt it yourself when taking on some new business, relationship, spirituality, or personal development challenge. Eventually you hit what Seth Godin calls the dip. We all have days where it’s hard to get going, to stay focused. Often it just takes a little push to get through the dip. Sometimes though, that off day turns into an off week or an off month. Instead of the upward spiral of motivation and action, we’re stuck. We need motivation to create action but need action to create motivation and we get nowhere.

Getting Unstuck

Sometimes self-analysis helps us get unstuck. Are we doing the right thing? Is what we are doing on our task list? Is it at the top of our task list?

Next we check the methodology. Are we following the instructions? Are we doing the right thing the right way?

If you’ve ever been in a Super Slump you realize that focusing on what we’re doing or how we’re doing it isn’t the answer. Or rather, isn’t the question. Here’s why.

Emotions vs. Words

The part of your brain you’re using to read these words is the neocortex. Your neocortex understands language, does math when it’s forced to and can even figure out organic chemistry. Your neocortex is pretty smart. But it has no feelings. That means it is incapable of making decisions—and it can’t create motivation.

The part of your brain which just reacted emotionally to that sentence, feeling amusement, annoyance, disbelief—that’s your limbic system. Your limbic system understands feelings and is where all the decisions in your life are made. It would be nice if our neocortex, the higher reasoning part of our brain, could have a little chat with our limbic system, to present facts and figures, a reasonable, logical argument, and compel it to make the rational decision our neocortex already thinks it made.

That won’t work. The limbic system has no capacity for language.

Despite this enormous barrier, the limbic system and neocortex communicate every day using the abstract concepts we call emotions. These two parts of our brain have agreed that certain words represent emotions. This leads us to the question that trumps what and how.

Why

Why? Because why, answered correctly, evokes an emotion, which bridges the communication gap between the two decision-making portions of our brain. Instead of pondering what we’re doing or how we’re doing it, we must ask ourselves why we’re doing it. Step back. Look at the big picture, the goal, the outcome you’re hoping for, the dream you’re chasing. Why is it important? Remind yourself of the emotions that made you choose to chase this dream.

Now, focus on how what you’re doing supports that why. Sometimes reconnecting emotionally with the end result we’re working toward turns that dip into an exciting challenge! There it is—motivation.

There’s a different, but all-too-common scenario: you discover that it doesn’t support the why at all. How is that possible? Why are we spending time on something that doesn’t move us closer to our goal?

Danger!

Deeper in your brain is your unconscious. Besides beating your heart and keeping you breathing, one of its primary jobs is to protect you from danger. The challenge is that your conscious and unconscious don’t always agree on what’s dangerous.

Your conscious believes that achieving this goal will be beneficial. If your unconscious disagrees, it wins. Your unconscious trumps your conscious every time. Just as you cannot will yourself to stop breathing for very long, you cannot override your unconscious mind for very long.

But what’s our unconscious mind protecting us from?

We may consciously know that the changes we’re making are positive. But emotional change is difficult; sometimes painful. Your unconscious probably wasn’t involved in the logical decision, the conscious decision, to change. It sees change as potentially painful and does everything it can to protect you from that pain. That’s why we find ourselves spending time and energy in a task, in a project, in a life that doesn’t serve us.

Negotiation

If you can’t overrule your unconscious, how do you get it onboard with the changes that you know are beneficial, worth the struggle, even the pain, of change? Once again—ask why. Analyze why these changes are worth making, not from a practical perspective (what you’ll change, and how) but from the emotional perspective, the feelings your unconscious and limbic system understand.

Take the time to let your neocortex fully explore in words the feelings you’ll have when you have met the challenge of this personal growth. In fact, if you’re given to this sort of behavior (I am), have a conversation with your unconscious right out loud. Explain to your unconscious that you understand its fear of change, that you recognize the potential pain and the difficult emotional work to be done. Explain the emotional value of reaching the goal and why, emotionally, it’s worth the struggle. Assure your unconscious that you will proceed with caution where necessary, giving your emotions time to adapt to new perceptions of yourself and to the emotional reactions of those around you.

Works for Me

When I have done this in the past, I have felt an almost physical click. As my unconscious accepted the new why, I have seen what I can only call spectacular changes in my thinking and behavior. When we consciously and unconsciously ask and answer why, motivation is the natural, even automatic, result.

4 thoughts on “Emotions, Motivation, and Your Unconscious Mind

  1. Joel! I can only say, “Good Work!” Good job, mate, this is strong stuff. The way you’ve been delving as deeply as you can (which is bottomless) into this concept/theory/philosophy/whatever of resistance, following its labyrinth to who knows where in the very center of your being — it takes a stunning amount of energy to push into these murky depths and clarify them in one’s own language. AND then to attempt to express all of it in words that others, maybe even everyone, might be able to understand — this, to me, is so noble…there’s just no better activity for the human mind, I think!

    1. Knowing your abilities in the realm of critical thinking, that’s especially encouraging to me.

      I have a super special secret project I’ll be unveiling between now and June 1st you might be interested in.

  2. “But what is [my] unconscious mind protecting [me] from? is the question that’s arousing my emotions. I appreciate how you wrote this article explaining how the parts of the relate to each other.. Very fitting for me and my memoir writing. I know the answer to that question but I don’t know how to get beyond it to make progress with my memoir.

    1. What I do is in that second-to-the-last paragraph:

      have a conversation with your unconscious right out loud. Explain to your unconscious that you understand its fear of change, that you recognize the potential pain and the difficult emotional work to be done. Explain the emotional value of reaching the goal and why, emotionally, it’s worth the struggle. Assure your unconscious that you will proceed with caution where necessary, giving your emotions time to adapt to new perceptions of yourself and to the emotional reactions of those around you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *