S2E5 Motivation vs. Willingness

Motivation may be one of the most misunderstood emotions that we have, often leading to a belief that we need to feel motivated in order to make changes in our lives. In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete define motivation and identify its limitations in helping us to change our behavior, and contrast it with willingness, which is a requisite for behavior change. While motivation may come and go, Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss how willingness can be cultivated through mindful practices. Check out Dr. Rubin’s guest appearance on “The Trusty Spotter” where she discusses how this applies to starting an exercise routine.




Nikki: Pete, I have patients all the time coming to me saying, I'm not motivated, how can I get motivated? And I really want to talk today with you about what motivation really is, and compare it to willingness. Because I just think there's a lot of misunderstanding out there about these two concepts, with motivation being the one that is more commonly discussed. And I actually think it's the less helpful concept. What do you think?

Pete:  I'm looking forward to talking about willingness. Because I've always enjoyed how you've been able to articulate willingness. And I would agree, and certainly, in the sports world, there are all the models of motivation. And so yes, I'm excited to dive into this with you today. And hopefully our listeners will get a better sense of what their willingness looks like.

Nikki: Yes, totally. Well, maybe we start there, because that is actually also one thing I was thinking about that is very interesting. Pete, being a sports psychologist, of course, motivation is going to show up in the world of competition. And so, if we could start there, just sort of like, in your experience. It doesn't have to just be sports folks. But how are people talking about motivation, like, where does that show up? How do you sort of hear people define it out in the world?

Pete:  So in the world, if I'm an athlete, and my coach feels like I'm not giving 100% at practice, the coaches are going to say something like, where's their motivation? What’s going on with this person? Thinking there's something wrong with them. So I think maybe we just start with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, because I think those are kind of the more basic ways.

Nikki: Sure, please, can you define this?

Pete:  Intrinsic are things that are internal. So they're aspects of motivation that are driven from just me and my own sense of who I am my values. So values aren't really connectable intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic will be things like money, that's always the easiest thing for people. So something that's on the outside of who I am.

Nikki: So there's like intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Maybe it would actually be a more accurate definition if we set that for behavioral perspective? It's like something either internal is a motivator.

Pete:  Dr. Rubin just rewrote the script.

Nikki: But okay, continue. So I'm actually operationalizing that here for something I want to define in a moment about motivation, but yes, continue.

Pete:  No you go.

Nikki: The reason I clarified that with Pete is that, so even when you're saying that, in the sports world, they're talking about, what’s the motivation? And if they don't have it, like, it's something wrong with somebody? I think the most basic piece of information that's misunderstood around motivation is that motivations and emotion. Like actually, if someone has depression, the term ‘a motivation’ just means like not having motivation as a common symptom of depression. And that's really important to understand, it's an emotion because I tell people just like every other emotion, anxiety, joy, fatigue, you know, anger, whatever, emotions are waves, they can go. And so what I always hear people say is like, Well, I'm not motivated as if they have to catch a wave of motivation in order to complete behaviors they want to do, and I'll say, like, look like riding, it's like, surfing, if you ride a wave to shore that obviously that's going to push you it's a lot easier, but you don't have to have a wave to get to shore, you could swim against the current you could swim when the oceans flat, right? But I think people have this inherent assumption that motivation is this magical thing that you need to do something but it's like, no motivation comes and goes just like every other emotion. What do you think about that?

Pete:  Yeah, because sometimes I’m motivated to get to the gym and other times I'm not for example, and it doesn't mean there's a flaw or what not. And I think that's what I work on with athletes is that sometimes you're going to feel more excited about your sport or more thrilled to get to practice and other times you're going to be like, I can't wait for this to end, it's kind of like senioritis.

Nikki: Yeah. [inaudible 04:53] in high school. So what you're saying is what you're framing for people, is that it's an emotion. It's not required to do tasks like sometimes I'll say to patients, hey, do you brush your teeth twice a day? Yeah, I'm like, Okay. Are you motivated to do it all the time? Like, no. It's like you don't have to feel motivation in order to engage in behaviors that are effective. But I think that the conversation is always around like it's a problem when someone doesn't feel motivated. And I always frame it for myself as like, Yeah, it's great to feel motivated, we can certainly cultivate motivation. Like, it's very helpful to experience that emotion. However, we can't start with the expectation that motivation is what changes behavior, what changes behavior is willingness.

Pete:  Oh, go ahead.

Nikki: Boom. Yeah, co can you define willingness as a behavior, Pete?

Pete:  Well before we do that, I think it would be important to at least address like Maslow's Hierarchy of needs, because as I was doing my research about just motivation theories. it seems like that is pretty much the fundamental underlying motivational theory, which we'll put this in the description before our listeners, it's a space, this pyramid that says, like, I have to have clothes on my back a roof over my head, food in my belly before I can continue going up this ladder towards self-actualization. So ultimately, if we're thinking about willingness or motivation, we're thinking about behavior.

Nikki: Yes. Willingness, I'll get to in a minute, is the motion enemy of your book. But what you're saying, though, is related because the evolutionary function of emotion moves you towards getting you your needs, right? So people are like, I'm not motivated. It's like; it's not really that you don't feel motivated.

Pete:  Yeah. Because you're motivated, because you have paid your mortgage or your rent this month, or you know, whatever it is, you've done. And that's, you know, allowed or you've found a way to get food on your table for your family. I mean, all that stuff is motivating factors. And we have to have the basic needs met before we can do anything towards that higher level.

Nikki: Yes, absolutely. Though, I think it's interesting You're bringing that in, because, this concept of motivation is an emotion because sometimes when let's say someone, again, has depression, and they, they're not doing those things. What they'll do is they'll judge themselves as like, something's wrong. It's like, no, you're depressed, depression negatively impacts, it decreases that emotion, it suppresses motivation.

Pete:  That’s right.

Nikki: We have this other option to cultivate willingness in the face of not feeling motivated. So I think it's like, I want people to feel some freedom here to know that they are, while evolution selected for motivation to move us towards getting our needs met. Modern humans were actually not required to feel that way to do behaviors that are important and effective for us.

Pete:  Yeah, I mean, self-disclosure, that's why I struggle to work with just severe depression clinically, you know, so as clinicians, we have to recognize our strengths and our weaknesses. So there are some different types of people that we work better with. And I have found that I really struggle with people with severe depression. You know, and I like the way you're framing it, maybe for this reason, you know, because the emotion of motivation has just been eliminated by the depression.

Nikki: [Inaudible 08:24] I know clinically that he doesn't work a lot with depression, though. I'm wondering if I’m just hearing you talk through it. I'm wondering if part of that is because I don't know if you guys can tell this from listening to me. Pete experiences a lot of motivation. Like that's sort of like a joke between us because we always say, on the outside, I seem kind of like more energetic and like, no, we joke and say like, I don't know if I can sort of have a more like high energy presentation, but on the inside, I'm very lazy. Yeah. And Pete can seem very chill on the outside, but it's on the inside. He's like, he's experienced a high level of motivation, which I don't actually have all the time.

Pete:  Yeah, well, it's exactly why.

Nikki: Do you think that's what it is?

Pete:  A 100%

Nikki: So, see, look, real time just clicking for me. Yeah.

Pete:  There it is. Yeah, real time. I mean, it's triggering for me on some level, well, it's triggering because then I feel so helpless. You know, because I guess I have a different.

Nikki: Biological strength.

Pete:  I have a biological strength of this emotion of motivation and so it's triggering because I feel so helpless when someone else is lacking there.

Nikki: That's fascinating. Yeah. And I mean maybe that's why because I don't have that biological strength. To be clear, like I don't have extreme ADA motivation, but it's like, I can lean that way and so maybe, it's like, where, I don't I also get a lot of things done, right like I'm very on top of things. So I think to me, it's like I really connect with like, okay, but that that emotion is not a requisite for engaging in effective and values line behavior. So anyway, see real stuff happening.

Pete:  Here the links to episode 6 season 1 perfectionism a little bit there too, because the level of like all that you accomplish even though you might describe yourself as motivated, you're still accomplishing a lot you know? So I think it's an interesting. So willingness definition of my definitions?

Nikki: I do.

Pete:  And I am your Michelle Visage to you my RuPaul. The quality or state of being prepared to do something readiness, the willingness is how prepared I am to do something? And how ready am I? And so I think that's why I like that you're going to go into this behavior and emotion.

Nikki: Yeah, and I'm going to add to that too. I'm going to add, you know how it's talked about in third wave CBT therapies and mindfulness, that willingness, actually in like, for example, an acceptance and commitment therapy and act. Willingness is used interchangeably with acceptance, they're the same, they're considered the same behavior. And that's because, you know, like, for example, in meditation, we often put our palms facing up a willing body posture, because it's opening up to what is, which we do a lot of work in opening up to discomfort.

Pete:  Yeah, well, I teach you, palms up for that willingness, or that openness, palms down for groundedness.

Nikki: For groundedness, same.

Pete:  I think we got the yoga.

Nikki: I know. That's, rip the words out of my mouth. That’s literally what I was going to say.

Pete:  That's why I jumped to yoga so fast, because I knew that's where you're going. But I look at it before she gets it, that's like our sibling rivalry right there.

Nikki: I was like exactly, yoga teacher taught me that. That's right.

Pete:  I feel like I got it from that. Because in Zen, we actually meditate with our palms, I don't know how to describe this. Sorry, y'all. But anyway, thumbs touching with their palms laying at one another.

Nikki: Yeah, one palm on top of the other.

Pete:  There you go. Thank you, Nikki. It's sort of at your navel. So yeah, so I don't know. But so we got that from yoga.

Nikki: We got that from yoga, thank you yoga. So through CBT willingness and acceptance are interchangeable. And we've talked a lot about acceptance as a covert behavior, right, a behavior doing inside your body. And I always kind of describe willingness, as it's both in a feeling and a behavior so, the behavior of willingness is this internal opening up, it’s internal accepting and its internal allowing, right. though, the reason I say it's like a feeling too, is because most people are able to recognize when they feel willing or feel open. And what makes that different than, and this is another term that comes out of dialectical behavior therapy, then willfulness, which is also a feeling of behavior.

Pete:  Yeah.

Nikki: Right. willfulness is the feeling of like, when you're like; I don't want to do it.

Pete:  Yeah.

Nikki: I don't beat when people go, like, I don't feel like it or you know, it's like, basically, in the moment when your brain wants to do the thing that's easier, right? You want to like, order takeout, instead of cooking, you want to like, snap at your partner instead of taking a break and walking away. Right. So the magic here is that, you know, again, you don't have to feel motivated if you want to change your behavior, in fact, you can feel willful meaning you can have the feeling of like, I want to do the easy thing. I want to stay in bed, I want to shout at my partner, I want to, you know, eat five bucks, Oreos, whatever it is, right? And I can simultaneously dialectically choose to act willingly.

Pete:  Yeah.

Nikki: And what's really interesting is the more like every other emotion, the more we act willing, in the face of willfulness, motivation begins to cultivate and grow.

Pete:  I see that yeah. Well, maybe it's like watering your plant, it gives it a little bit of strength. Season 1 we talked a lot about acceptance was Episode 2 and 33. You know, thinking about how much that's critical. And I think, like, say, for high performers, for example, they struggle to accept, for example, that I'm not motivated or that I don't feel motivation.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete:  Right. Because there's something wrong, I'm flawed and I, coaches, especially, you know, because you and I are the same grade.

Nikki: Almost two grades older than me.

Pete:  Just to clarify.

Nikki: Just to clarify, a lot of the coaches I work with are several grades above where I am, high level and so they're in a different demographic. They're not in that yet of like, this is not flawed. It's actually natural, it’s human.

Nikki: It's normal because it's an emotion, right, and it's like, I think that's where I want to change the discourse around it, you know, like, Pete and I obviously, quite committed to accuracy here, right. And so even just like what we were saying behind the podcast, like even the language in psychology research like intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivations like, probably named intrinsic motivators versus extrinsic motivators.

Pete:  You started to change that, yeah.

Nikki: It's that motivation like; we're not going to feel motivated all the time. And yet, like I say, I'm not motivated to brush my teeth every day. I do it because I'm willing, right, because it's aligned with my value of dental health.

Pete:  Well, and toothache sucks.

Nikki: Yeah, and toothache sucks.

Pete:  That would be like a positive reinforcer that pain that would happen to your tooth is so terrible. There is nothing worse than that, got it. Sorry.

Nikki: I did a guest video spot for a blog where somebody had wanted to talk about exercise and the difference between willingness and motivation, because that's kind of a common one. People are like; I don't want to do it. It's like; let's not start from saying I need to get motivated to exercise. It's like, let's just start by saying you don't want to exercise.

Pete:  That's right.

Nikki: Right. Okay.

Pete:  I wonder what the gym memberships were like this January. 2021. Just curious. Just putting that out there because it's always after the New Year's resolution increases, and I'm wondering…

Nikki: What with COVID?

Pete:  Yeah, I'm trying not to say COVID too much so, and we’ve been doing a good job with that so far season 2.

Nikki: Yeah, I know. We're like actively ignoring. So Pete, I'm wondering, you know, obviously we're talking a lot about motivation and willingness from a behavioral science perspective and an evolutionary perspective. Is there anything that Eastern philosophy would have to say about this concept of motivation?

Pete:  It's not as explicit, certainly not like the West has been. I think it's about a little bit of self-honesty and so it's that introspection. So a lot of like, Eastern philosophy forces us to look at ourselves and so what we're probably doing is this self-honesty of like, when I'm causing harm, or when I'm suffering, I need to embrace that that's what's happening. So like, if I'm gossiping, because we all gossip.

Nikki: That's right.

Pete:  Feels good sometimes.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete:  That’s what humans do and when I do it, I'm doing It I have to do that honestly. Which means that I have to embrace and recognize to myself that this is not part of the eightfold path which we’ve talked a lot about on here? So eightfold path, like the eight behaviors or commitments that can help leads towards enlightenment or end suffering.

Nikki: Can I maybe ask, and I'm certainly guessing the answer here as well, in my question.

Pete:  Like a good academic.

Nikki: Yeah, totally.

Pete:  That’s a questionable answer too.

Nikki: Yeah. You know, in that, following the eightfold path would be like using willingness though, right. Like, I'm going to guess that probably Eastern philosophy, especially obviously, you're discussing Zen Buddhism here, like willingness is, I mean that's what we borrowed in third wave CBT therapies, would that be accurate? Like, focusing on cultivating willingness to take steps towards these commitments on the eightfold path?

Pete:  Absolutely. I mean the six ones right effort. So it could be about your effort. And because, again, it's about embracing that, I might not feel like brushing my teeth, and I'm going to find the willfulness to do so.

Nikki: Willingness.

Pete:  Willingness. Yeah.

Nikki: Yeah. The willfulness would be like; I don't want to do it.

Pete:  I don't want to do it.

Nikki: And then acting willfully would be, and I'm not doing it.

Pete:  That's right.

Nikki: Right.

Pete:  Yeah. So I think the effort, oh go ahead.

Nikki: I was just going to say more about that, because I mean, I'm not as familiar with all the details.

Pete:   Yeah. Well, so it's right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. So that is the eightfold path. So really, we could probably interpret willingness in all of them, you know, what's my willingness to understand someone else's perspective? What is my willingness to embrace my thought and the speech, which is where the gossip comes in, or action? So I think you could probably look at willingness across the all the eightfold path, one of the things that I would say is the middle path, is another big piece of that, which is probably a part of this mode of, you know, I need to find the middle path of like, I'm not going to be 100% of the time, feel the motivation.

Nikki: Right.

Pete:  And so middle path would say, like, embrace that and then commit to the next moment, which might provide you with the opportunity to then again, feel that motivation.

Nikki: Absolutely, absolutely. So, you know, just to wrap up here, I think that that's what I want our listeners to leave with is recognizing that motivation is an emotion that is going to come and go in waves like every other emotion we experience. It feels great when we can catch a wave of it. And it's not required to engage in behavioral commitments that are effective and aligned with our values. What's required for that is willingness and that's something you can cultivate.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete:  And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave. This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.