Are you chasing your dreams or running from your fears?

March 12, 2023

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Are you chasing your dreams or running from your fears?

A new Australian study, the first of its kind, has shown that, when it comes to pursuing personal goals and protecting your mental wellbeing, it pays to understand your underlying motives.

Researchers surveyed 210 participants to investigate the relationship between underlying goal motives, emotion regulation, and anxiety and depression.

The study examined two types of motives that underpin personal goal pursuit— ‘avoidance-oriented’ (to avoid threatening or feared outcomes), and ‘approach-oriented’ (to strive toward desirable and pleasant outcomes).

The researchers found that those who pursue goals with underlying motives that were fear based (avoidance), were more likely to experience emotion regulation difficulties, which in turn increased symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The lead author said that personal awareness of what drives us to achieve the things that matter is a critical step in protecting mental health.

What the researchers say: “It’s also important to understand that an approach-oriented motive may underpin an avoidance goal, and vice versa,” she said. “For example, an underlying avoidance motive, to avoid social rejection, may stimulate adoption of the approach goal behavior, to appear sociable and talk to several people at a party.”

“Or, alternatively, an approach goal to do well in an exam may be driven by the motive to avoid feeling a failure or upsetting one’s parents,” she continued. "Having awareness of underlying motives that drive personal goals, potentially gives people an opportunity to reflect and to create choices, such as adapting or reframing personal goals, motives or thinking, if necessary.”

The researchers said while avoidance may be beneficial in the short term, for example, getting out of the way of imminent physical danger – such as a flood, engaging in avoidance more long-term is associated with increased anxiety.

“Avoidance motivation typically increases negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety when the threatening scenario seems imminent,” they said. “Reframing avoidance motives may be a useful strategy in protecting against difficulties in emotional regulation and anxiety. For example, fear of failing an exam, might be reframed as striving towards passing.”

The lead author explained that this study furthers an understanding of the nature of depression and anxiety from both a motivation and emotion regulation perspective.

“This is the first study to explore underlying approach and avoidance motivations and emotion regulation difficulties in relation to depression and anxiety,” she said. “Although we found avoidance motives increased emotion regulation difficulties which in turn exacerbated depression and anxiety, approach motives did not lead to emotion regulation difficulties or depression and anxiety, suggesting that approach motives that drive personal goal pursuit seem to play a protective role in maintaining mental wellbeing.”

So, what? The findings have implications for self-management and ongoing therapy developments, as well as mental health promotion programs. They’re also important for leaders and managers who want to better understand what might hold a colleague back or to find ways of motivating them.

Forcing someone to do something that they fear doesn’t make them brave (the “face your fears” nonsense) or more motivated to try.

On the other hand, finding out what the real fear is and what support they would need to feel safe enough to try again or try harder could lead to real motivation.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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