Finding Your Why - Why Bother? Advice from a Clinical Psychologist
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come across posts about “finding your why” on social media recently. It’s said so often these days, I can’t help but wonder if it’s beginning to lose some meaning. So why is everyone banging on about it? And does it matter?
Why Finding Your Why is Important
The short answer is yes, your why matters. If you’re on a recovery journey, making any behaviour change or introducing a new habit, it is important to have clarity about WHY you’re doing this. Chances are, if you’re not sure why making this change is important to you, then at some point, you’re going to find it difficult because change is hard. Human beings naturally crave the familiar (even when it’s not that good for us!) because this is how we’re wired. Change is absolutely possible - repetition literally rewires the brain - but it doesn’t come naturally to us. This is why knowing your why is important.
Motivation is a fire from within. If someone else tries to light that fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly
Stephen R. Covey (1932 - Present)
When reading about motivation, it’s likely you’ll very quickly come across the terms “extrinsic” and “intrinsic”, along with some explanation about the differences between the two.
In a nutshell, intrinsic motivation is that fire from within that Covey is talking about. When you’re intrinsically motivated towards a behaviour, you do it because you enjoy it or because it gives personal meaning or satisfaction to you. The behaviour itself becomes the reward.
Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when you’re doing something for an external reward or to avoid punishment or some other negative outcome (e.g. you put the bins out to avoid your partner moaning at you for not doing it). You do the behaviour to get something you want, or to avoid something you don’t want, from external sources.
If you're reading around this topic, you’ll probably get the sense that intrinsic motivation is better, but like most things related to human behaviour, it’s not that straightforward. You’ll likely be better able to sustain long-term habit change if you can tap into intrinsic motivation, but there’s also a time and a place to use extrinsic motivators to help you reach your goals. When it comes to lifestyle changes for the long haul, you’ll probably want to be drawing on some combination of the two to respond to the challenges that arise along the way. The key is to have some awareness of what is motivating you at any given point in time, and if you start to struggle, it might be time to remind yourself of your “why”.
How Do I Find My Why?
Change becomes possible when you come to realise that it's in your own best interests and that the change will bring more benefits than costs. If you’re considering making a change in an area of your life, the first step is to ask yourself “why do I want to change?”
I’ve noticed over the years that the first answer that people give to this question is often not really their why and that they need to spend a little time going deeper. You can do this with the “so what?” check.
Let me try and illustrate with an example. If Karen has decided that she wants to lose weight, her first response to “why?” might be “so that I can fit back into my favourite jeans”. If she then asks herself “so what?” (i.e. why do I want to fit back into my favourite jeans) then she might say “because I felt more comfortable when I could wear those jeans, my knees didn’t hurt the same and I could run around and play with my kids easier”. Already, this will be a better motivator than the first response, but she could check again to see if there’s anything deeper still. This time, the answer to “so what?” might be: “I want to have the freedom to do activities with my kids without feeling restricted because of excess weight or pain - my kids are everything to me”. The trick here is to keep asking “so what?” until you reach an answer that doesn’t go any deeper - that is, if you asked “so what?” again, you’d give the same response.
Once you’ve used this “so what?” trick to help define your why, it’s important to write it down somewhere so that you can refer back to it when change starts to feel tough. It can also help to reassess your “why” at various points along your journey as this may evolve, and what motivated you, in the beginning, might not pack the same punch anymore.
If you still feel stuck in finding your why, you can schedule a free 15-minute consultation with me to talk about how I might be able to help you get unstuck The “so what?” trick is only one way to try and help you figure this out - there are other ways a psychologist can help you here.
Ok, I Have my Why - What Next?
I could write an entire book on habit change and many have - I can give some pointers here (more below), but if you’re looking for some more in-depth assistance, you might want to check out James Clear’s Atomic Habits (LINK) - this is a great starting point. Or why not schedule a free 15-minute consultation with me to talk about your why and how to get going with making those changes?
In the meantime, you’ll want to start thinking about a plan of action that you can commit to implementing. To help with this, ask yourself the following questions:
- What’s one small step that you could take right now that would move you closer towards your goal?
- What obstacles might you face along the way and how might you overcome these?
- What has held you back from making the change so far?
- What things have helped you change in the past? How can you have more of these?
If you feel stuck with any of the above, or just feel like you need someone to support you in making these healthy changes, please do get in touch