In Part 2 of this series about mastering your motivation, we looked at the concept of self-sabotage and how it’s related to the basic psychological needs. We used eating behavior for illustrative purposes, however, I asked that you replace it with any behavior that you’d classify as inherently necessary for the meeting of an important, self-endorsed goal. I also invited you to remember that whether you deem the behavior effective and necessary does not always mean that it is, or that the consequences of engaging in it are healthy and functional.
In Part 3 of this series, we will take a deep dive into the first of the basic psychological needs, autonomy. As you’ll recall, this is the felt sense of choice and volition. To begin, I’d like to share the dialogue from a conversation I had a few years back.
“How’s the weather over there in California?”
“Well, it’s a bit out of the ordinary actually,” I replied. “It’s really rainy, and yesterday we were in the midst of flood and tornado warnings!”
“Wow! That’s unusual!”
“Yes! How is it where you are? Where are you?” I asked.
I was talking to Chris, the AT&T support technician who was helping me to set up new service.
“I’m in El Salvador, and it’s…”
“El Salvador? Really? I’m sorry—that was just unexpected!” I said.
“Yeah, well I’m on vacation.”
At this point I’m wondering if I should hang up and try for another tech person. I gave him a chance.
“This is the second month of vacation. I decided I wanted to travel, but I needed a job along the way…”
“Wow! Are you by yourself? You’re brave to go on a big excursion like that on your own!” I was genuinely impressed.
“Yeah, I’m alone, but I’ve stopped at places where I have friends. Traveling just really gives me a new perspective. All my friends at home are getting married and having kids and I was starting to feel some pressure to do the same. But it didn’t feel right. So, I decided to leave for a change of scenery.”
“How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking? I have felt the same way. I’m not sure we can avoid being influenced by the people we’re close to, but at least you are present enough to recognize that feeling is there and reflect upon how you want to respond to it, right?”
“Yes! Exactly. I’m 34. How old are you? You sound really smart.”
“Haha! Well, I suppose that’s a matter of opinion, but thank you. I’m 37. We’re not far apart in age.”
I told him about what I do, and we discussed his nutrition and how the change in his diet over the course of his travels had netted him a 10-pound weight gain. When he finalized my order and found discounts significant enough to give me the service for at least 60% off, he said, “I really enjoyed talking to you. No one is ever willing to talk to me like this when I’m working. Thank you.”
When we hung up, I stopped to consider what had happened. In half an hour, two people’s lives intersected and changed. I could have chosen to continue working on the client program I was developing while he was busily executing the contract for my cable and internet bundle. He could have assumed the person on the other end would be just like all the rest and chosen to forego an attempt at conversation.
Choice. This is what autonomy is all about. Autonomy is not independence, it’s not about isolated and solo attempts to get the job done, and it’s not about finding ways to persevere through tough situations without asking for help. Autonomy is a sense of freedom to make choices without coercion or force by another. It’s feeling the spaciousness to pursue something because you want to and deem it worthy of your time, effort, and energy, not because someone or something else says you need to, you should, shames you, or demands that you do. When we're not operating from a place of autonomy, it's very easy to end up feeling confused and chaotic because we are pedestaling the ideas, influences, beliefs, and experiences of others or things outside of us, above our own.
Now, keep in mind that there is both covert and overt coercion. In the context of eating behavior and especially dieting, it’s crucial we reflect on both. Let’s look at each and what they mean, and then let’s look at specific choices we make and who or what is influencing them.
In the many years I spent coaching people as they pursued weight loss goals (this is no longer what I do as part of my coaching work), the majority would come to me with intentions of becoming healthier. When I asked them what healthy meant to them, often I would be told that they needed to lose a specific amount of weight to get to their ideal weight. Or, that according to the BMI chart, they were classified as _______. Many had a desire to get off medications for conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and they were under the impression that weight loss was necessary to do so.
Coercion that is covert means it’s hidden. It’s not explicit. When we’ve been covertly coerced, it means that we’ve adopted and internalized beliefs that we haven’t necessarily signed up for. In other words, we haven’t consciously and deliberately signed off on them in an informed, knowledgeable, clear-eyed way.
The majority of my clients really believed that in order to be healthy, weight loss was crucial. The diet-oriented culture we live in, had convinced them of this without them even knowing. When I would press my clients to share more about what it would look like if they were healthy, they were absolutely able to go deeper. They would share how important it was for them to be able to get on the floor with their grandkids, go for walks without getting winded, and feel more confident. Great, right? Sure, but they could not separate each of those things from their being a “weight problem.” Getting on the floor with the grandkids more easily could literally be accomplished by practicing getting on the floor with a more appropriate body position. Going for walks without getting winded could be accomplished by incorporating activities that increase one’s cardiovascular endurance. And feeling more confident in a truly nourishing and sustainable way is an inside job, not accomplished by changing how one looks on the outside.
I recognize that what I am sharing here is counter-cultural, and that’s exactly why I believe it’s worth reflection. We move through this world with beliefs that often we don’t even know we have, and when we act on them, we often unknowingly harm ourselves and harm others. But because we are all swimming in the same waters, when everyone else believes the same thing (even if it's wrong), and we choose to buck the system, it can be very confronting.
Overt Coercion is explicit, visible, and obvious. It might look like your spouse telling you that if you don’t lose weight, you won’t be attractive to them. When I was actively involved in natural bodybuilding competition, yes, I made the choice to compete, but I was overtly coerced into believing that in order to be the best, I would need to focus on a very specific appearance and look. I endorsed the goal, but looking back, I did not know what I was actually getting into or how it would affect me as I continued the pursuit. Until I did, and then I had some reckoning to do before I eventually moved away from the behavior altogether.
You may be thinking of different situations in your life now that have undermined your autonomy without your even knowing it! Let’s look at some examples below.
Choosing a Diet
Many commercial diet programs remove autonomy from the dieter when they provide restrictive eating plans and little flexibility. Such rigid nutrition often leads to binge eating, disordered eating, preoccupation with food, and a lack of adherence deemed to be important for success. These behaviors very often trickle down into self-doubt, a lack of confidence, a belief in one’s lack of willpower of self-control, and then the next restriction episode. Unfortunately, most dieters attribute failure in perseverance to a personal deficit rather than a poorly designed diet. Even worse, they are not even aware of the conditioned understandings they've adopted, often misguided and promoting of objectification and self distrust.
Choosing a Coach
The people in our lives are particularly important to our sense of autonomy. We can all relate to the desire to have like-minded individuals around us, who support our decisions, honor our needs, and are interested in our process. Often though, the support people give us is less than encouraging and it threatens our autonomy.
“The coach I had before, Kori, wouldn’t let me ask questions. He would tell me to ‘just do what I tell you.’”
I can’t tell you how angry I feel when I hear stories of coaches who dismiss their clients’ desires to learn, grow, and understand. Ideally, support will
optimize our strengths and aid in the connection of our goals to our values. Often frustration, self-doubt, and a sense of disconnection are consequences of autonomy-robbing support we receive from important others.
I worked with one woman who struggled with consistency because of a co-worker. She described how she perceived her co-worker as being purposefully critical of her eating and food choices and viewed this to be particularly threatening to her confidence. She mentioned that it created significant doubt about her abilities. Whenever her colleague would make a snarky comment about her food, she could feel the strong desire to binge in reaction to her discomfort, and sometimes she would.
In one email to me when my client described her challenge with overeating, the first word she typed was “OMG!” She explained that her overeating episodes related primarily to job stress, custody issues, stress/conflict with her husband’s ex, and “people emotionally trying to tear me down, or feeling crappy about myself.”
Whenever she was uncomfortable emotionally, she tended to “eat uncontrollably, want to eat out instead of eating (at) home, or consume alcohol….” When she learned to notice her discomfort and remember that none of these substitutes would meet her true need—in combination with a lot of deep breathing and other coping strategies—she would go to her husband who would remind her of her strengths, her successes, and the reasons she chose her goal in the first place.
Comparison: The Thief of Motivation?
Another woman I worked with explained her inclination to set unrealistically high standards and expectations for herself, in addition to the belief that she was the sole impetus for her eating behaviors. She described feeling a strong sense of autonomy; however, she also spoke of numerous circumstances that seemed to threaten her sense of choice. Her motivations for shifting her nutrition in meaningful ways were driven by “comparison…to female athletes in magazines…comparison to other women who I assume are happy with their weight…” as opposed to personal values and internal rewards and
consequences, which would help secure a less pressured and more enjoyable goal pursuit experience.
Choosing a Goal
Do you see areas in your life where your sense of choice is undermined? Have you adopted goals for someone else or under the direction of another, and you’re left feeling uninspired, used up, and resentful? Are the people who say they support you demanding, coercive, and pressuring? Or, perhaps you are seeing that you may have chosen the goal because you’ve been conditioned to. You believed you freely chose it, but there are other forces at play that you weren’t aware of before.
On the other hand, while we all would like to feel on top of it all, all the time, if a goal is important, the pursuit is going to be hard! This doesn’t necessarily mean our autonomy is threatened. I started my own business, and there wasn’t a single person who told me I should or needed to. I was very aware of the doubts I had about doing so and still don’t really know if it’s the direction I want to pursue! How’s that for honesty! I have a lot of questions and a tremendous amount of uncertainty, but I believe that’s the exact right place to be. I suffer the most when I believe that what I’m pursuing is supposed to be easy all the time! What I can say without a doubt though, because I’ve done a lot of work and reflection, is that this pursuit, however it turns out, was freely chosen. I cannot say the same for other goals I have adopted.
On the flip side, I realize that I’ve been covertly coerced by what most of us would know as “hustle culture.” My mind has been conditioned to believe that to start a business means to go big! I really have to pay attention and get underneath the ideas that keep tripping me up regarding the monthly revenue goal and what it means to me (not anyone else) to grow.
If our goal pursuit is truly yours though, and you have decided to continue moving forward clear-eyed, courageously, and reflectively, autonomy can be there to fan the flame!
Stay tuned for Part 4 as we continue this series on mastering motivation. In the meantime, please give this blog a like, comment, and share it with a friend. If you would like to discuss private coaching, please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org