A year ago on a very early Saturday morning, I found the motivation to join a friend in an RPM class at the local gym. For those not in the know (at one point myself included), RPM is the latest gym-speak for a spin or stationary-bike class. And for me, let’s say it was an opportunity to improve my health and well-being as it was love at first cycle. 

Why had I avoided this class for so many years? One of my closest friends from Colorado tried for years to get me to bike with her either on the road or in the gym. At that time I had a thousand reasons why this wouldn’t work. I have to say I feel a bit embarrassed I had avoided it for so long. But avoid it I did! There didn’t seem to be anything I could have heard back then that would have motivated me to take part in this popular Colorado exercise.

The real reason?

Secretly, I believed I would fail at it. Fail not a little bit, but fail at epic levels.  I just didn’t believe I could keep up with others in the class and I was sure I would be lying in a pool of embarrassment by class end.  And it wasn’t just biking I included in this secret fear. There was a host of other physical endeavors which I had persuaded myself I could never do. In actuality, it’s not that I didn’t exercise, but the quiet and privacy of my house, or the 5 AM walk, was the chosen path for me. Activity that quite frankly didn’t challenge my false beliefs of I can’t.  

But then it changed, or perhaps I changed.

Seven years ago, I was required to attend an evening function at the college I was teaching at. That night I met an amazing woman who was destined to change my life. 

She was in charge of the physical fitness facility at the college and was the director of the athletics programs.  One of her main goals was to help faculty and staff to become healthier.  Our instant connection made it easy for me to convey my secret unfounded fears.  Looking me squarely in the eye and with a confident tone to her voice, she committed to help me with a fitness program that would work for me. She was true to her word.

For the next seven years, I spent two or three early mornings a week at what I began to call my own private gym. The athletic center was open and available to all employees, yet in the wee hours of the day (6:00 am) I consistently remained the only person exercising. Every few weeks my confident advisor would meet with me, evaluate my progress and adjust my program. I was lucky, no I was very lucky and I have to say a bit spoiled, with all the great support and amenities available to me.

It was somewhat surprising to me in a few short months the improvement I began to notice.  Not only did my strength begin to improve, but my overall tone also became apparent.  One morning I couldn’t help but gush to my committed trainer of all the advantages I was seeing.  She, in turn, attributed my success to my self-determination, crediting my intrinsic motivation which had kept me steady and succeed in my quest to conquer my faulty fear.

Let’s get motivated!

Limiting beliefs? Throw in a Dose of Self-Determination

Psychologists have long tried to find the key to opening up motivation in others. Early research, influenced by Darwinism, looked at instinct for the root cause. However, that theory had many holes in it, starting with the fact we are all so different in what drives our behavior. As it seems the drive, or the need, to swim upstream like salmon or wash our food like raccoons is just not inherent. We, as species are driven by too many individualistic needs! 

Evolutionary psychologists will point out the fight to survive and biological needs are usually common drivers for most humans.  But what happens when we get beyond these needs?

The Self-Determination Theory

One of the more prevalent theories today on motivation is the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) initially developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. This theory has been researched, tested and refined by experimental psychologists around the world. Some of the core premises are:  

  • Intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation
  • Social and cultural factors
  • Social development
  • Dynamics of individual motivation and/or group motivation 

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation occurs when an individual engages in a behavior purely from the point of view that they receive some element of satisfaction or internal reward for doing the behavior. Activities such as reading, or anonymously giving to others or learning for learning’s sake can all be examples of intrinsic motives. 

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is a bit opposed. It is engaging in behavior because there will be some type of external reward for it. Children working hard for grades because they will get paid for them, a person performing an act of giving, based on the desire for public recognition, or forming a friendship based on what you can gain from it are some examples. 

Most psychologists would agree extrinsic motivation doesn’t lead to intrinsic motivation. In other words, there is not a correlation between paying children for grades and them eventually loving to learn for learning’s sake. Some research indicates this actually may prevent intrinsic motivation from forming.

Limiting Beliefs Interferes with Motivation

Moreover, a faulty belief system can very much interfere with our motivation. While parents, teachers, coaches, and managers often struggle to figure out how to motivate, the fact is an unconscious negative belief can undo all efforts. How to determine that magic formula for challenging limiting beliefs without running headfirst into walls created by those beliefs can be as unique as each individual and situation! Especially hard to challenge are those core beliefs formed in early childhood. The longer we operate under a faulty belief system, the more difficult it may be to change.     

When the Self-Determination Theory is employed in our lives it can have a wide range of effects which help us to see ourselves in a new light.

  • Attitudes can become more positive
  • Assertiveness, feeling like we can challenge ourselves, is more present
  • Pride, feeling the success of just doing it!
  • Improved problem solving – correctly evaluating factors which can interfere with our new found progress
  • Confidence – building self-esteem and new concepts which relate to how we feel about ourselves.

Before I started my exercise program, my attitude and belief system held me in the thought pattern of I can’t. Truly, at one time, I had strongly believed what I began to master during those early morning sessions would not have been possible for me. But as my confidence and strength built, so did my willingness to assert myself to higher goals. My belief system was challenged and changed!  That in itself became a source of pride for me, proof that I could. 

Group versus individual motivation

Limiting beliefs? Throw in a Dose of Self-Determination
One of the more interesting areas in the study of motivation is the dynamic between what motivates a person individually as opposed to when they are in a group. For some, the idea of working out by themselves with no one around would be the last thing that would motivate them. They may want to be motivated to excel within a group setting, and in fact that may be exactly what is needed.

But looking to a group for any type of motivation can be a bit tricky. There are classic cases where the group direction starts to go amuck. Individuals may find themselves going along with a group decision that is far riskier than they would take on themselves.

Take for example someone who may try to engage in a group workout such as a boot camp or other high-intensity workout.  While it may be true the group may motivate to go beyond perceived limits, there can also be those cases where individuals move beyond their physical capacities to keep up with the group. Despite awareness, the risk of injury may increase, some may pursue keeping with the group’s norms rather than listening to their own body.

Why People Comply With Group Behavior

According to the tenets of most theories on group motivation, why people comply with group behavior rather than listening to their own voice may be rooted in the following internal/external balances within each person:           

  • How important is the group to the individual?
  • Do they feel accepted by the group?
  • How strong is their self-concept and/or confidence level in themselves?
  • Do they have a sense of identity outside the group?

The more important the group is to an individual and the less acceptance one feels from the group, the more likely we are to stretch what we are willing to do to stay a member. In addition, groups may develop a conformity pressure which can also lead to what psychologists call risky-shift, where being part of a group causes people to make decisions about risk differently from when they are alone.  This pressure can, in turn, block out good or even moral decisions, over-ridden by the desire to stay within the parameters of the group-think. On the large scale, you have classic cases similar to the Enron scandal, when there was planned and systematic corporate-wide accounting fraud.  In the more personal world, it may be us going along with the group on extending ourselves physically, against our better judgment. 

Diversity in Group Leads to Good Decisions

In group situations, diversity does help when motivating the group to good decisions. Men, for example, tend to make riskier decisions than women. Women, on the other hand, are likely to make decisions that support the overall good of an organization. Collectively, the benefit of diversity in all situations, from the gym to the boardroom, helps move the group toward healthier decision making.  In, for example, a boot camp class or a high-intensity workout class, leaders could make sure members understand it is okay to work at your level and modifications are possible and acceptable.  The sense of well-being in a group grows substantially in accepting different standards within the environment. 

Bringing Self-Determination from Theoretical into our World

A bit closer to home, how can we use the Self-Determination theory to get ourselves off the couch, and engage in a new physical activity or even mental activity such as reading the latest best sellers?  There can be little doubt that success is one of our best motivators. But what is success to me may be different for you. And that’s where self-reflection and challenging the stories we tell ourselves can begin the steps to self-determination.  Moving behind our internal false talk and beliefs starts our journey, here are other points to consider: 

Set personal goals

Goal setting has proven to be an effective method to move forward. 

Identify and solve problems which could be a barrier to achieving goals

If for example, I want to exercise, but can’t afford a gym membership, what else might be available to me? It could be a community gym or even setting up a program at home with elastic bands and free weights after a one-time session with a trainer. Be creative in approaching problems.

Tie your choices with personal interests

If you love yoga then use that as criteria for your choices in exercise and social interaction. Perhaps the boxing gym isn’t the best option. Look for groups on Meetup.com which have common interest with what you are looking for.

Be a participant in your life

Many times people will have a hundred excuses why they can’t engage. Many of those excuses are based on a faulty belief system and are only a story we tell ourselves. Change your story, change your life.

Our sense of well-being can be challenged as we get older. I would love to say I am as fit and flexible as I was at 25, but the reality check with just my eyes and ears tells me differently! We course-correct as we move along through the stages of our lives,  yet when we start operating under the guise of absolutes – I can’t, I’ll never, it’s all awful, my body won’t let me – we begin to lose motivation and the opportunities to be an active participant in our own lives. 

In that college gym seven years ago, I challenged many of my faulty unconscious beliefs. That created a new-found energy that transformed into continued motivation to further challenge myself to improve and find new strength.  My words, I never can, became yes I will. I still found the need to challenge my beliefs as I had to do more recently with the RPM class. All a friendly reminder, faulty beliefs can be found in many the stories we tell ourselves!

Motivators!  What will work for you?  Sometimes it is surprising.  For me, one of my simpler motivators has to be the satisfaction I gain every time I enter the cabin of an airplane and effortlessly place my carry-on bag in the upper bin without help. It always brings a smile to my lips and an internal cheer-YES I CAN!

Self-Determination copyright DElarde, 2018

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