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Motivational Paralysis

by Anna Caveney

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Editor's Note: These are the handouts to Anna's excellent presentation on Motivational Paralysis as a cause of underachievement.  If you have a chance, see Anna's presentation.  Meanwhile, these handouts give an excellent summary of her presentation, and great insight into a common cause of underachievement.


perceived to be performing below expectations

bulletlack of capacity
bulletinadequate resources
bulletlack of interest
bullettechnical difficulties
bulletpoor motivational health - an acquired form of self-sabotage that mystifies observers and humiliates suffers...
Motivational Paralysis

Think of doing the task, and flinch at the thought of...


the weight of anticipated failure

the knowledge that if you do complete this task, it will just be replaced by another

if you accept the task, it is tacit acceptance of an inappropriate / inadequate system

surrender equals death of self -- you can hold my body, but I won't surrender my mind / soul

why is it so hard for me, and so easy for others? what is wrong with me?

if I do well, it's expected, and used only to humiliate my classmates

if I don't do well, they will revoke my smart person membership card

if this is all there is to life, why bother?


Every time you think of the task...

Common Manifestations of Motivational Paralysis

Unhealthy Perfectionism -- self-esteem  is based on attaining an unreasonable, even impossible standard

Lack of Perspective -- poorly calibrated work evaluation skills.  What is a challenging task?  How long will it take to complete a particular task?  How do you break an overwhelming task into reasonably-sized pieces?

Skill Deficits -- planning skills are only developed when needed

Low Mental "Muscle Tone" -- shame, embarrassment and humiliation when faced with challenges requiring sustained effort

Limited Basis for Identity Formation -- if you are what you do, and you never do anything properly, then you're worthless

Risk / Challenge Avoidance -- if I never try to start doing it, I won't have to experience failing to accomplish it

Passive Resistance -- failing to suffer silently, in the form of poorly suppressed anger that "leaks" out in unfortunate ways

Isolation -- a result of fear that you have to protect loved ones from stress, and fear that the real you isn't worthy of love

Break the Cycle of Shame

bulletMake it clear that your love is unconditional, and that you don't want to be protected from reality, and mean it
bulletExplain that hundreds of thousands have the same problem
bulletExplain that these undesirable habits are acquired, not innate.  They aren't genetically doomed
bulletStop the agony.  If possible, create a sizeable period [several months to a year] of no deadlines, during which you and they work to understand how and why your patterns didn't work
bulletUnderstand that feeling bad all the time isn't useful.  Guilt, shame and avoidance are hobbies, not paths to improvement
bulletIf you can't abstain from deadlines entirely, limit the amount of time they are supposed to be working towards them
bulletRead Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, together.  Talk seriously about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and how they interact
bulletDon't ask about the task -- ask about the goal
bulletDon't confuse schooling with education.  Add value to school tasks, and pursue challenging experiences outside of school
bulletDon't ask how well they did on a test -- ask if they learned anything from it
bulletDon't act as an external motivator -- every time you do, you undermine their development of self-management skills.  Don't become "Guido the Enforcer"
bulletDon't make them face it alone.  Role model by working to understand your own motivational assumptions and skills

Top 10 Skills to Learn and Practice

  1. This is not a phase: it could conceivably last the rest of your lives.  On the flip side, any improvements you make now, you get to enjoy for the rest of your lives.

  2. Separate and clearly identify goal and method for task

  3. Balance ideals versus reality

  4. Don't request lies, or endorse them

  5. Distinguish between long-term and short-term goals

  6. Separate intrinsic and extrinsic worth.  Honestly and openly discuss the worth and relevance of each task

  7. Balance individual needs against communal needs

  8. Experience facing challenging activities

  9. Develop accurate evaluations of tasks

  10. Tough love isn't the answer!  Helpful, thoughtful love is...

Keep your eyes on the long term goal.  Don't become obsessed with methods of short term goals (meaningless in the long term).

Role model, role model, role model!

Plan for the process to take 1-3 years, depending on the degree of paralysis

This is something that will cost less than $60, doesn't require the cooperation of the school, and will help your child be able to make the most of the opportunities they get, repair damage and build skills.

Self-Image / Self-Respect

treat with compassion
speak to with self-respect
stop using carrot & stick
love self without condition
learn to giggle at silly bad habits -- especially the embarrassing ones
distinguishing between looking like an idiot and being one
don't place your identity on something that can be taken away

Parents as Resources

unconditional love
understanding acceptance
role model
learn vocabulary, then share
explore range of variation
identify and trace effects of behaviorism
     For Your Own Good by Alice Miller,
     Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary S. Kurcinka

Emotional Literacy

value full spectrum
emotional ABC's
emotional recognition
feelings are important information
it is OK to be sad / angry
emotion doesn't excuse poor behavior
parents would rather know the upsetting things and be able to help
worry is a hobby; don't confuse it with a useful act

Practical Function

separate goal from method
identify motivation
task subdivision
estimation and prediction
method individualization
distinguish between long-, medium- and short-term goals
don't expect to wake up as another person; work toward being the best that you can be

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