Why are so many people unmotivated?

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Why are so many people unmotivated?

Or is that our bias?

We are all motivated by different things. 

For some of us, motivating factors might include wanting to feel happy, wanting to help others, or wanting to achieve a goal. Often people with complex or chronic trauma histories are frequently motivated to avoid negative thoughts, emotions or consequences. These avoidance motivators can be just as powerful as approach motivators, and in some cases, even more so. The challenge in the mental health and education culture is that they only want to use approach (the desired future, the joyful outcome) as the basis for motivating clients and students.  This is problematic because it is very limiting and unintentionally stigmatizes those who have the audacity to have neurodiversity.


Though we may not always be aware of it, our behavior is often motivated by a desire to avoid certain stimuli. Avoidance motivation comprises emotions, cognitions, and actions that are driven by the wish to avoid an aversive situation, distressing feelings, or undesired consequences.  Avoidance motivation can be considered a risk reduction activity or a reactive mitigation of such ugly things as feeling unloved, unwanted, ineffectual, or perceived threat is social and relational dimensions.  When thinking of trauma clients, particularly those with chronic or complex trauma, avoidance motivators can be helpful though often dismissed because of the bias inherent in mental health and education.  Addiction is almost always related to avoidance motivation.  A substance abuse or dependence or a process compulsions interfere with negative thought, emotions, and behaviors which give psychic relief. However, the psychic relief garnered may lead to secondary problems, reduced quality of life, and even a shortened lifespan.  


Often the motivated avoider frustrates the “normals” in the mental health and education world.

There are tremendous programs and curriculums that are designed around progressive movement toward a desired outcome, usually, the desired outcome is not chosen by the client or student but forced on the participants in the mental health and education worlds.  This failure to appreciate the neurodiversity of avoiders is a massive illustration of designing systems that are less than responsive to the needs of all participants and an assault on the self-esteem of the individual, who cannot benefit from the approach motivation stance. However, being sensitive to the very common need to structure goals to utilize avoidance motivation, and developing a skill at doing so, will greatly improve clinical outcomes in mental health and academic performance in education.  

One reason for the power of avoidance motivators is that they often involve negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and sadness, which tend to be more motivating than positive emotions. Another reason is that avoiding an aversive situation generally requires less effort than pursuing a desired goal.  Remember that your Chronic and Complex trauma clients or students will often find it many times easier to not do something than to do something. Finally, avoiding an aversive or negative situation often has immediate payoffs in terms of reducing negative emotions in the moment.  As soon as the relief comes reinforcing dopamine cascades make it more likely to be an action that is repeated.  Relief is the reward!  A failure to understand this when working with those with a trauma learning history puts one at a disadvantage in helping the client transform their lives and heal from trauma.  Additionally, the benefits of approach motivation are usually delayed, and sometimes for a great deal of time, the delay itself becomes aversive to many trauma clients.


Avoidance motivators often come into play when we are trying to heal from a traumatic experience.

To avoid reliving the trauma, we might stay away from certain people or places that remind us of what happened. We might also avoid talking about the event altogether. Each of us needs to be sensitive to the neurodiversity of the traumatized so that our helping is trauma-informed.



Written by Robert Rhoton Psy D., LPC, D.A.A.E.T.S.

Dr. Robert Rhoton, CEO of Arizona Trauma Institute and President at the Trauma Institute International possesses a rich history of experience in the mental health field.


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