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Motivation vs Compulsion

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Why do we perform certain actions with ease, simplicity and grace, while for other actions we have a sense of unease and resistance throughout? Sometimes we need huge amounts of willpower, effort and misery to achieve something or despite our efforts we barely succeed. At other times, we can’t even start to do what we intended because we lack vitality.

Each time we perform an action there’s a lot happening in our nervous system. For each action that we perform we need a motive, which will trigger a series of electrical and chemical signals through the nervous pathways until they reach the muscles that carry the action. These motives are usually a response to some kind of tension that we need to release. We drink because we are thirsty, we scratch because we have an itch, etc…

Our actions have different circuitry in the nervous system. As humans we inherit a number of reflex actions that are automatic. We don’t need to be consciously motivated to do them because they are designed by evolution to protect us and guaranty the continuity of the species. In order to achieve that their circuitry is shorter, to reach the muscles almost instantaneously.

Nevertheless, we have fewer instinctive actions than the rest of the animal kingdom. Compared with other species, we need to learn most of our actions throughout a long dependence period. Then, what we learn becomes habitual, which means that as well as the reflex actions, habits have a short circuitry to reach the muscles quickly and almost without us being conscious of it. Most of those quick responses are shaped by our upbringing and environment and are not really a conscious choice.

Then, when we want to act differently, we need to have strong enough motivation to overcome those habitual responses. Because the action is not familiar, which means was not learnt yet, the electrochemical signals go through a much longer pathway in the nervous system before they reach the muscles. In meantime, the habitual responses travel faster and create that feeling of resistance and the need for effort during the intended new action, because there are contradictory signals, which we can call cross-motivations.

Cross-motivation is also a characteristic of compulsive actions. When an action doesn’t succeed in relieving an inner tension it is because the person is fighting contradictory motives so is never satisfied and still continues repeating the same pattern. “The action is not specific to the tension and never relieves it fully. Some tension always remains, compelling a new spurt of action.”

We may manage to achieve certain things in life through single-mindedness and inner compulsion, often though, we get there numb by the constant efforts and we compromised our vitality and joy for living. A gracious and well performed action is also an easy one, that doesn’t need effort to succeed, because it has a unique and clear motivation.

When we learn well, we not only create new neural pathways but we practice to inhibit what Feldenkrais called “parasitic actions”, which enact themselves from habit and without our intention. We become “…more competent managers of motivation - casting aside all those that hinder the positive motivation - which therefore stands out clearly. The resulting action is unhesitating, without resistance.”

Thank you for your attention. I’m looking forward to seeing you in class.



Reference: “The Potent Self: a study of compulsion and spontaneity”, by Moshe Feldenkrais,

San Francisco, 1985.

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