Internal Motivation versus External Motivation

The reasons we do what we do may lie within ourselves, based on our ideals and values, or they may lie outside of ourselves, based on fear, reward, or concern about what other people think. The distinction is useful since what we practice we become good at. Building internal motivation, like building muscle, makes what we do easier later.

Some tasks we cannot get ourselves to do without some reward–tasks that are repetitive and feel meaningless but must be done, for example. We construct external motivations in order to encourage ourselves to do them. We do not need to worry about undermining our internal motivation because the task itself is mundane and our internal motivation is unlikely to build. It would be difficult to imagine such a task, but perhaps there are some.

There are then all the other tasks, projects, work, and play that we do, which do have value to us and the world. There is something to be said for getting in touch with our internal reasons for doing what we do and using those reasons to move us toward what we want to accomplish. The added benefit is that we strengthen our capacity to use our internal motivation in the future.

If you reward your child for doing homework, the child comes to believe that he or she is doing schoolwork for the reward and not out of a joy in learning or a sense of accomplishment. Instead of building the child’s internal motivation for learning through the joy of mastery, you are undermining the child’s trust and respect for his or her own mind. In the same way, if you see your work as something that you must do even when you don’t want to, you are undermining your natural motive to make effort, create accomplishments, and express yourself in the world.

The ideas of motivation, will, determination, and conscientiousness are qualities of mind that cannot be directly measured or apprehended. Instead, they are ways of understanding the process of managing life, relationships, and work. That process permeates all aspects of our lives and creates our perspective about ourselves and our world. Even when we are faced with challenging problems or tasks, we can trust in our own capacity to rise to the occasion, to do our best, to be true to our ideals. We come to trust our own process.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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