Motivation describes a collection of internal and external forces that push us toward goals; It is imperative to what drives us to progress in achievement. Finding drive is a personal feat and can vary based on values, morals, and ethics, as well as barriers and unforeseen circumstances; without it, mental health can suffer, leading to a person struggling to find meaning in their life and depression.

In a therapeutic setting, motivation acts as our compass as we move toward the positive changes of a fulfilling life. This blog explores motivation’s profound theories and impact in therapy, shedding light on its role in overcoming obstacles and unlocking the doors to a brighter future.

Theories around Motivation

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: One of the leading theories around motivation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. This theory utilizes the image of a pyramid with five levels that build on each other to lead to the top goal of self-actualization. While the visual may be misleading that you must completely master one to go to the next level, many people can reach heights and still have deficits in some categories. As a general assumption, food, water, and safety are typically a foundation for proceeding to more abstract levels. The different levels are defined below:

  • Physiological needs include our most foundational and basic needs for survival, including food, water, sleep, shelter, air, and warmth. (this includes sex in adults)
  • Safety needs- refer to societal safety: financial security, emotional security, health, stability in relationships, law and order.
  • Love and belonging- are all humans need for human connection and to feel connected and part of something. Some examples include trust, intimacy, affection, and friendship.
  • Self-esteem– is our self-concept and how our reputation provides us respect and recognition (or not.) Self-esteem is rooted in feeling valued by others and oneself.
  • Self-actualization- is the realization of full potential within oneself. While many don’t stay in self-actualization, many often step into it with specific moments where they achieve a long-term goal or desire.

Expectancy-value theory is a mental equation of motivation that considers a task’s value and measures it against the expected likelihood of success or failure. It resembles a cost-benefit analysis of whether it is worth the effort and considers the following:

  • Intrinsic value: enjoyment taken out of the task
  • Cost: how much money, time, energy, and happiness does the action take from the person
  • Attainment value: understanding of the importance of the action being performed well
  • Utility: how useful is the task in the grand scheme of the person’s life?

The Transtheoretical Model, also known as stages of change, refers to a person’s mindset cycle when considering a goal. In addition, it is necessary to acknowledge the three elements of change: readiness, barriers, and likelihood of returning to an old behavior. As we keep the elements in mind, this model lists the following stages:

  1. Precontemplation: At this stage, individuals may be unaware or resistant to the need for change. Therapists work on raising awareness, highlighting the discrepancy between current behaviors and future goals.
  2. Contemplation: Here, individuals recognize the need for change but may feel ambivalent. Therapists explore the pros and cons of change, helping individuals weigh the costs and benefits.
  3. Preparation: As commitment grows, individuals actively plan for change. Therapists collaborate with clients to develop strategies, set goals, and build confidence in their capability to enact change.
  4. Action: This stage involves implementing the plan. Therapists assist clients in navigating obstacles, reinforcing motivation, and providing tools to sustain positive changes.
  5. Maintenance: The focus shifts to preventing relapse and consolidating gains. Therapists help clients integrate new behaviors into their daily lives, fostering long-term success.

Addressing the fluctuations and possibilities of failure allows one to plan for the unexpected. We will return to this idea in the intervention section of this blog.

 Self-determination Theory refers to the ability to make choices about one’s life with a sense of control and not feel controlled by the desires of others. Based on this theory, individuals feel more motivated when their actions influence the outcome. Individuals need to feel a sense of autonomy, connectedness, and competency within themselves. When a person can engage in something they are interested in, the activity becomes the inherent reward itself.

Example: If you love to run, it might be something you look forward to begin your day, and as a result, you take enjoyment from it, but if you don’t enjoy it, it becomes harder to get yourself to do it

When people apply self-determination to their daily lives, such as work, education, health exercise, or even parenting, the following positive outcomes develop:

  • Satisfaction with work
  • Offering support and positive feedback to others
  • Increased mental toughness in overcoming challenges that interfere with goals
  • Strengthened social identity and formation of positive relationships

What does motivation look like in therapy?

 While many enter therapy with a presenting problem, clients often struggle with how to solve or understand their situation. As a therapist, it is our job to ask questions, listen to a client’s story, and tap into information that can guide their time together. Motivation serves not only as a compass but also as the fuel for the transformation journey. In therapy, understanding the sources of inspiration is crucial for building a roadmap towards healing and personal development. This process begins with building a therapeutic alliance with the client so they can feel safe exploring fears, wishes, vulnerabilities, and ambitions. As the interworking of a person’s life becomes more evident, we work in tandem with clients to set goals that match the vision of what they perceive as a meaningful and successful life, and this comes in many shapes and sizes.

Intrinsic Motivation Vs. Extrinsic Motivation

When we refer to different kinds of motivation, it is crucial to address the factors that shape the success of our actions: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation refers to the drive within us that comes from our enjoyment, satisfaction, and interest in an activity; in other words, it is already inside us. In this case, the sheer fulfillment derived from mastering a skill that already piques our interest is enough to keep us putting effort in and striving to achieve despite some challenges.


Tapping into Intrinsic Motivation in therapy: Work in this area typically includes the exploration of aspirations, passions, and core values. When we use these items to form goals, clients are significantly more likely to maintain their commitment to achievement and change and, as a result, find a more meaningful accomplishment.

Extrinsic motivation comes from recognition, rewards, or avoidance of punishment instead of innate interests. In this case, what happens after the specific action has meaning, not necessarily the act itself. While extrinsic motivation can be helpful, it often lacks the potency of intrinsic motivation.


Tapping into Extrinsic Motivation in therapy: outside sources kick-start change in the early stages of treatment, but exploring where these external expectations come from is essential. As this becomes clearer, the hope is to focus more on intrinsic motivators for meaningful growth.

Goal Setting and Interventions

Typically, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation intertwine in daily life. Therapists must recognize the different kinds that speak to a client so they can use these to help clients sustain a long-term commitment to the process. Therapists create a comprehensive strategy that maximizes motivation and increases the likelihood of lasting change by aligning short-term goals with external incentives and nurturing intrinsic drivers, which becomes measurable during goal setting and intervention. Below are some standard methods therapists use to give tools when understanding motivation’s role in making progress:

  • SMART goals- use an acronym to make qualitative information more tangible and, thus, actionable. The acronym is listed below:
    • Specific (Examples: understanding emotions, improving communication, navigating conflict)
    • Measurable (Examples: Diary cards or data, Likert scales of emotion intensity)
    • Achievable (Examples: one lap around the track, waking up 10 mins earlier than usual)
    • Relevant (Examples: goals must align with personal meaning)
    • Time-Bound (Examples: 6 months, 2 weeks, 30 days)
  • Top of Form
  • Bottom of Form
  • Interactive Feedback and progress Tracking are imperative to fostering motivation in therapy as they highlight the noticed changes and demonstrated growth. Therapists use interactive feedback in two ways: formal and informal. Informal methods include voicing noted differences in social situations, whereas formal feedback uses data. People tend to do better when they’re recognized for progress. Often, people are too close to see how they have improved.
  • Accountability and Self-Awareness: Part of making identified changes requires an honest look at the barriers that stop a person from doing so, even if it comes from within. This self-awareness allows for planning around these things.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Strategies- As we address reaching goals and their barriers, most people have pejorative or unhelpful thoughts that influence their ability to persevere. CBT work addresses the inner critic to help reshape negative thought patterns and cultivate a positive mindset. Power over these thoughts significantly affects what a client thinks they can do.
  • Emotional Regulation and Problem-solving Skills: To persevere through challenges, we must reduce the intensity of uncomfortable feelings and cope, especially when many goals require delayed gratification.
  • Self-monitoring, mindfulness, and journaling- staying on track with goals and maintaining motivation includes regular self-reflection; doing so outside of therapy also reminds clients there’s value in continuing even if gratification is not immediate.
  • Reinforcement & Reward Techniques- rewards and reinforcement come in all different shapes and sizes and don’t have to break the bank. They can be social encounters, an activity, a new workout outfit, or a coffee. Small rewards for significant accomplishments make things a little sweeter than the consequence of behavior alone.
  • Social support- Community can significantly influence the likelihood of someone staying engaged with a goal, and it taps into extrinsic motivation ideals such as feeling accepted or belonging.
  • Motivational Interviewing is especially helpful with low confidence, ambivalence, and low desire to make a change; it is also great when a person cannot see the importance of changing their behavior. Many clinicians will begin here using compassion, acceptance, and partnership. Motivational interviewing uses affirmation, reflections, open-ended questions, summarizing, and planning to meet the client where they’re at.


Overcoming Resistance and Celebrating Resilience

Noticing your resistance to motivation can be challenging and cause clients to see their struggle as a sign of weakness. Resistance happens to all of us, and several factors can be at the root of its cause. Recognizing these roots is a step toward turning obstacles into self-discovery; below are some common ones:

  • Fear of Change: the idea of doing something new can cause a lot of anxiety because, for some, it might also mean things could get worse before better. Transitions can be challenging, and giving yourself grace during the process is essential.
  • Comfort in Familiarity: Even if the current situation is challenging, the familiarity of it can create a sense of comfort. The therapeutic process helps to examine the costs to maintain the status quo and highlight the potential benefits of change.
  • Lack of Confidence and Low Self-Esteem: Often, clients will present with a resistance masking as the inability to change. The root of this is usually a lot of painful negative self-talk that prevents them from moving forward. Fun fact: we do better when encouraged, not put down.

There are many schools of thought on the concept of motivation ( many of which overlap!). It is essential to recognize that motivation is not a constant because the world around us and our lives are ever-changing. You are not meant to run on all cylinders all the time. Slips and surges are natural parts of the journey. The good news is that there are techniques to manage the challenges of motivation, and for the days we falter, there is always room for self-compassion.

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