Motivation Confuses Me

Early January is that time of year when people in the Western World, by common consensus and an arbitrary calendar date-change, commit to starting fresh. People make resolutions and set goals for the new year. These goals often involve diet and exercise. One body-positive blogger I’m fond of hosts a month-long group along these lines, with the intent of countering the for-profit diet industry and steering people away from damaging myths and negative thinking. I’ve never been one for resolutions (and I may get into the reasons for this more as the post progresses), but this year, I thought, “What the hell? I need help, and this sure couldn’t hurt.” So I signed up to receive the daily emails and I joined the Facebook group.

Now, I’m no stranger to “lifestyle changes”–or, at least, attempted lifestyle changes, particularly those revolving around diet and exercise. The last round began seven or so years ago. It started the way they usually do: I got fed up with myself. My weight had gone significantly higher than 200 lbs. I didn’t like the way I felt and I didn’t like the way I looked. So I joined Weight Watchers, which I’d never done before. I tracked my “points” religiously. I made a point of getting more exercise. And I lost weight–fairly easily and quickly, too. Yay, me! Within a few months I’d gone from a size 20 to a size 14. I may have been able to wear a size 12, but I never bought anything smaller than a size 14. I was proud of myself. I liked myself better. I liked my body better.

However. I never managed to achieve my “goal weight” according to Weight Watchers, which was 145 (ironically, this is the weight I started out at WAY back in high school, before my eating disorders, when I was regarded as a “Fat Cow”). I got down to about 162, but I never could get my weight any lower. And I only kept my weight as low as that by adhering rigidly to the “weight loss” program. Every time I tried to switch over to maintenance, I gained. Fast. And even on the “weight loss” system, my weight started to creep back up, eventually stabilizing at about 175.

It didn’t help much that at this same time, I was dealing with the worst recurrence of my chronic depression that I’d experienced since high school. My GP had run me through every medication she could think of with no success, and finally referred me to a psychiatrist. This gentleman, while he did diagnose me with Bipolar Disorder, also put me on a cocktail of drugs that only relieved my depression by way of turning me into an unfeeling zombie. Eventually, in the summer of 2009, I ended up in the hospital again. But hey–I’d kept the weight off!

When I got out of the hospital, I stopped seeing that psychiatrist and started seeing a mental health nurse practitioner, who supervised my getting off all the unnecessary medications and trying out others until we finally found one that worked. I started feeling better. I started writing again. At the same time, I realized I hated Weight Watchers. Keeping track of everything I put into my mouth made me feel terrible. The “modified recipes” I’d been using, which I’d been so pleased with at the start, struck me as tasteless and vile. The constant exercise exhausted me. So I stopped. I stopped everything. It wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life. It made me unhappy, and unhappiness was something I was trying not to participate in.

Please don't make me eat salad again!
Please don’t make me eat salad again!

Of course, the weight came back. Slowly at first, but then faster and faster. Some of it may have been due to the new medications I was taking. But some of it I probably could have prevented. I’ve never liked exercise for its own sake, so I stopped doing it. In the worst part of my depression, I’d got out of the habit of leaving the house at all, and after the depression lifted, I didn’t go back to it. Forget walking three miles a day; now I didn’t even walk the mile downtown and back to check the mail, which had been part of my daily routine. Going out and being seen triggered my anxiety, and, after all, my husband could pick up the mail on his way home from work. My main exercise was walking back and forth between the couch and my office.

Well, anyway. Currently I weigh 240 lbs, more than I ever have in my life. I don’t like it. I don’t feel good. None of my clothes fit. I don’t feel pretty. I sweat a lot, and I think I smell bad, and I’ve developed asthma. I’m not totally sedentary–I do yoga several times a week. And I don’t eat a lot of junk (although I have become lazy about cooking and I probably don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables). But it’s not enough. I’ve tried several times to shed the weight I’ve gained. I even rejoined Weight Watchers a couple times. Nothing ever worked, and I’ve always quit again after the three-month introductory period when I haven’t lost any weight. My doctor has tested my thyroid and my blood sugar and a whole bunch of other things. She’s tried me on medications that are supposed to aid weight loss. She sent me to an endocrinologist. Nothing’s wrong with me on a physical level that anyone can find. None of the medications had any effect. Nothing worked at all.

I just need to get more exercise, and I can’t make myself do it. Which leads me back to signing up for the motivational emails and the Facebook group, in an attempt to kickstart my latest “lifestyle change.”

I want to make it clear, here, that I have nothing against bodies being any size at all. I know beautiful fat people, and beautiful thin people, and it’s all good. But I don’t like the shape my body is in. I don’t feel good, and I don’t feel healthy. A few months back, I went to an event my husband’s band was playing at, and I wanted to dance. I couldn’t. Not even through one song. My legs hurt, and my balance was bad, and I got short of breath. This, from a person who once danced six to eight hours a day. I want to be able to dance again.

Back to the thirty days of positive motivation: I’m on day three. Today’s email asked a couple of questions: “What is your positive goal?” and “What resources can you use to use to help you stick to your goal?” Okay. Positive goal for me is easy. I want to feel better. I want to be healthier. I want to be able to dance again. All good things.

The second question, though…The group leader gave a couple examples. She has a music playlist (which she shared) that helps her get jazzed. And she’s going to reward herself with a mani-pedi “because I’m awesome and I deserve it!”

My gut reaction to this statement was “That’s really classist.” Must be nice to spend money on something like that when you feel like it! I’m a woman on disability married to a poor schoolteacher. Every single penny we can come up with is spoken for. What resources can I use? I dunno; I don’t have a lot of resources at all.

I realize this is flawed thinking. I do have resources. I have a computer with access to the internet. I have a good music collection. I have a pretty nice house. And, as friends pointed out when I posted about this on Facebook, you don’t need money to pamper yourself. You can give yourself a mani-pedi! I even have a foot soak kit I bought months ago that I’ve never used. Anything that gives you pleasure is a good reward. So my friends told me.

As I considered this more (while doing yoga–hooray for me!), I realized…No. I didn’t realize it, because it’s something I’ve been aware of for some time, in a vague kind of way. I made a fumbling attempt to confront my real issue here. (Sidebar: I’m thinking more and more that this year, for me, is going to be about peeling off another layer and addressing stuff I’ve known forever on an intellectual level but never carried into a place where I can deal with it. Huzzah!) I have a problem finding motivation. I have a problem with rewards-based thinking. I have a problem wanting things. I have a problem feeling pleasure at all. And all these things combine to create a major stumbling block in my ability to achieve my “goals.”


Pleasure, desire, sense of accomplishment, sense of gratification: It seems to me all these are useful things to focus on when you motivation is running on empty. But I don’t experience any of them, not really. I am pathologically detached from them. What I mean is, when I say, “I want my body to be in better shape,” or “I want to be able to dance again,” it’s a thought. I don’t feel it on any deep level. It doesn’t carry any weight or have any meaning. It’s theoretical. The same when I finish a writing project, or clean the house, or, I don’t know, go for a walk or take a shower. I don’t get a sense that it means anything. The best I can manage is, “Well, that was nice. Okay. What now?”

I have some ideas about why this is. My family wasn’t great in the praise and reward department. In fact, they were (and are) abysmal. I was raised with the expectation that I would be exceptional, so when I was, it was no big deal. It was just being who I was supposed to be. No one praised me for writing a prize-winning paper or rewarded me for getting cast in a play. No one celebrated me or my accomplishments. In fact, some of those accomplishments were seen as problematic. If I got cast in a play, someone would have to drive me to rehearsals and pick me up after. I was raised to fit into the spaces of my parents’ lives. What I did in those spaces was up to me, and it had nothing to do with them. They never mentioned what I did unless it caused a problem. As a result, I can’t view anything I do as a big deal, no matter how exceptional it might be. I never learned that I was worthy of praise or reward. And I have no context for praising or rewarding myself, aside from (generally toxic) standards I picked up from social messages along the way.

In a similar way, I learned not to want things too much. If I expressed a desire, I could count on being told why it was wrong for me to want that, or why it was impractical, or how selfish I was for wanting something that would put my parents out. “No, we won’t take you to the amusement park because Daddy wouldn’t enjoy that.” I could count on being judged according to the actions of siblings who came before me. Here’s an example: When I was a kid, I loved art. I really wanted an artist’s easel. One year at Christmas time, I accidentally stumbled upon an easel that had been hidden in the basement closet. I was so excited! I thought I was going to get what I wanted. But when it came time to open presents, there was no easel among mine. Later, my sister brought her kids over. The easel went to one of her daughters. I was young enough not to be as afraid of my parents as I became later, so I asked about this. “Why did you give her the easel and not me? I’ve been asking for one.”

This is what my mother told me: “We got an easel for your sisters once and the never used it. It was a waste of money. We figured you’d do the same thing, so we didn’t want to waste the money on you. But your niece has real talent.”

I’m not going to bother to deconstruct the message in this. Just let it sink in.

Lots of New Age-type people spout the inspirational message “Let go of expectation.” I guess they mean to say that if you let go of expectation you’ll never suffer the disappointment I did over that easel. But it’s a message I despise, because when you’re completely free of expectation, why the hell should you do anything? I’m here to tell you that a life free of expectation is a miserable life, one without hope. People talk a lot about finding motivation from within and not counting on outside validation. “Do it because you want to!” But that only goes so far. It becomes a burden. If you never get any external validation at all, your internal motivation dries up and blows away on the wind. It’s like those fantasy novels where wizards use up their inner resources doing some huge spell and burn the magic out of themselves. It’s a limited quantity.

grumpy motivation

I suppose what I suffer here is a variety of Learned Helplessness. Achieving a goal through actions that put me outside my comfort zone never gets me anything. Why should I bother going outside my comfort zone? Losing a bunch of weight in High School didn’t make me any less of a pariah. It didn’t get me the role I wanted in the musical. I’ve lost and gained since then, and it never made a real difference. There are things I want on a deeper level, sure. But getting in better shape isn’t going to magically restore my fertility, not at this point. My husband says he thinks I’m beautiful no matter what I weigh or look like. Getting in better shape isn’t going to make him more comfortable with showing attraction toward me. It’s not going to make my books sell more. It’s not going to bring our family out of poverty. I could get up off the couch for any of those things. In comparison, the idea of “wanting to be able to dance again” is distant. When do I ever dance, anyway?

The idea of reward also seems to conflict with my sense of inherent worth. If I’m an amazing person anyway, why should something I like be held above my head as a reward for an achievement? Don’t I deserve that mani-pedi no matter what I do? And if I can only earn the right to something I want through engaging in activity that I don’t like, doesn’t that mean that doing what I enjoy makes me unworthy?

I understand that making a radical change requires you to go outside your comfort zone. Believe me, I’ve done that, over and over again. But I seem to have reached a point where, when I weigh my comfort against the possible outcome of making a change, I can’t figure out how intentionally making myself uncomfortable is worth the distress. I don’t get anything out of it. And I can’t imagine a life where I would. It might be different if making little changes, like doing yoga five times a week instead of three, had any kind of impact. But it doesn’t. And all too often even that small change triggers an averse reaction, like a migraine that lays me out for three days. Maybe having to puff on an inhaler ten times a day in order to draw a deep breath is better.

I don’t like my fat, out of shape self. I truly don’t. But I’ve had enough ups and downs in the body department to know–or to believe, anyway–that my identity baseline doesn’t actually change much, no matter what kind of shape I’m in. And in case you’re wondering, I’ve done the CBT and the DBT and the BMT, and all the positive-thinking exercises there are. They don’t work for me. It’s not a thought I have to change. My beliefs don’t live in my head. They live in my stomach. I can feel them there like a lead weight, every day.

Yesterday, when I was in the middle of writing this, something came up and we had to go out. I put on a bra and jeans, something I don’t usually do. I kept them on for six hours or so, during which we went to dinner. By the time I got in the car to go home, I was miserable. I couldn’t breathe. Everything felt too tight. I couldn’t bend over without my stomach pushing into my pants and the waistband of my jeans cutting off my air. I thought, “Maybe this is something I could do. If I put on real clothes every day instead of wearing sweats (i.e., being comfortable), maybe it would motivate me to lose the weight.” And then I thought, “But that would be negative motivation, wouldn’t it?” It would be imposing an uncomfortable standard on myself in order to make a change possible. It certainly wouldn’t be a reward.

I honestly don’t know where to go with this. As I mentioned earlier, this year seems to be gearing up to be a time when I go deeper into issues of self and self-worth, issues I thought I’d come to terms with years and years ago. I welcome ideas and comments.





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