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Finding Motivation to Make a Change for Your Mental Health


Much of my work as a therapist is helping individuals to resolve ambivalence to lead an intentional life. Ambivalence arises when we feel more than one way about something important. This can feel immobilizing.

Let’s say you want to make a major life change, but you can also see the advantages of the keeping things exactly the same. Or, others are telling you that you need to make a change, but you aren’t exactly sure what is the best action to take. Or, you might feel committed to making a change but aren’t actually sure how to go about doing it. At times like these, you may feel vulnerable to external pressure (for example your boss, your partner, your family) to make decisions for you.

It can be clarifying in these moments to connect with what motivates you most in life. What are your most closely held personal beliefs and values? What drives you? What gives you momentum? If you listen very closely, you’ll notice you have an internal voice that tells you what to do. That voice may be very quiet at times, or you may not feel ready to listen to it, but there it is. Studies show that connecting with personal motivation is key to making effective and lasting changes in your life. As a therapist who specializes in motivational enhancement, I offer some suggestions for getting ready to make a change by tapping into what motivates you most:

1. Give yourself credit for thinking about making a change.

In the counseling field, it is well-recognized that there are generally five stages of change:

1. Pre-contemplation (a.k.a. the “Get off my back, that’s not my problem” stage),

2. Contemplation (the “Well, OK, maybe you have a point” stage),

3. Preparation (the “Hmmm, I wonder what resources are out there” stage),

4. Action (the “OK, fine, I’ll take some steps” stage), and

5. Maintenance (the “Look at me, I’m doing it! Let’s keep it up!” stage).

Even if you are not ready to act on making a change, there is a lot of work that can be done by hanging out in the thinking-about-it phase. If you are not ready to do anything else, simply let yourself imagine what it would look like to make a change and go from there.

2. Look at the pros and cons of making a change.

When trying to decide whether to make a change, it can be helpful to write down all the pros and cons of keeping things exactly the way there are. Then make another list of the pros and cons of making a change. It may sound obvious, but the act of writing down the pros and cons of a making a change can bring important values to the surface. Pay attention to where the balance of pros and cons pushes you towards an action step.

3. Be specific about the change you would like to see.

What kind of change are you thinking of making? Is it drinking less alcohol in the evenings, exercising more, worrying less or using assertive communication? Define exactly how you would like to improve your life, even if you are not ready to make a change yet.

4. If you’re still not sure what to do, then make space to connect with your inner wisdom.

Take a few moments away from any distractions. Sit in a quiet space and slow down your breathing. When you inhale, breathe in the question that you are struggling to answer. On the slow exhale, simply listen for an answer. Take your time because the answer may not come right away. Sometimes the answer will come in the form of a thought or an “aha!” moment. Sometimes the answer will be an image that flashes in your mind. Or, the answer may come in the form of a sensation, or a settling in the body, when the right answer comes to mind. No matter how the answer comes, giving yourself the space to tap into your inner wisdom will help get there.

5. Ask yourself: How would my life be different if I made this change?

Imagine every aspect of life with this change: Who would notice? How would you feel about yourself? What is possible with this change that wasn’t before? How is your health impacted by this change? Visualizing the change you would like to see in yourself can help you imagine what change even looks like, build readiness to take action steps and boost confidence that change is a realistic possibility.

Whenever you are struggling to make a change, take a step back and look at your deepest and strongest motivations in life. Listening to these inner motivations will help you get closer to action steps. But, of course, you must first pause and reflect on what these motivations really are.

What motivates you to live the life you want?

Anna Lindberg Cedar, MPA, LCSW is a therapist with special expertise in motivational interviewing to help individuals resolve ambivalence and take action towards their goals. Find out more: www.annacedar.com.

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Thinkstock photo via Maryna Patzen