Away-From & Towards

Aug 6, 2009   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon  //  1 Comment

“Keep your mind on the things you want and off the things you don’t want.”

[Hannah Whitall Smith, 19th/20th century Quaker author and activist in the Women’s Suffrage movement]

[I wrote about this general concept a good few years back now and touch on it every so often, but after the last two ‘slices’ on Desire here and here, it fits really nicely and will serve as a timely reminder.

What follows is, I realise, an over-simplification, but I’ll go ahead with it anyway because it’s often only through considering things simply that we uncover the most useful truths within…]

(1278 words – approx 6-8 mins to read)

What pops into your mind as you roll those two phrases around in your head:


Some of you may have responded by imagining an episode of the Teletubbies, with Dipsy repeating each one in his sing-song tones whilst Po runs back and forth. Others, perhaps a little older, may remember clips from Sesame Street where expressions like this were played out on the TV screen with some stop-motion trickery and a bunch of enthusiastic kids. Whatever you’re imagining, whether it’s similar or utterly different, just let it run on in your head for a moment or two before we move on…

These two expressions actually form one of the central constructs that Psychometric Profilers and NLP people refer to as ‘Motivation Direction’. It’s an important concept that deals with how our motivation is raised and maintained in varying contexts, and in fact it’s vital when it comes to understanding why certain elements of our lives might be going well whilst other areas may range from ‘stable’ to ‘one step away from disaster’.

First let me give you an example: your health.

If you behave in a ‘TOWARDS’ manner in the context of health, you have a goal in mind, often fairly clear, of what you want to be like and make choices and take action that move you TOWARDS that goal. It might be to do with weighing a particular amount, being able to run a certain distance, get into a particular size clothes or even a particular item (e.g. a wedding dress), or something similar.

This means that when it comes to choosing what to eat, whether to exercise or not etc., you have your goal in mind and make dietary choices that support that goal. Yes, you may have the occasional slip-up as we all do, but the movement is generally TOWARDS your healthy goal, and behind that motivation is a positive emotion that draws you onwards and helps fuel each choice.

“Hang on a moment!” I hear a few voices cry, “Don’t we all do that anyway..?”

No, unfortunately not, and to give you a little more understanding, let’s consider the opposite.

If you behave in an ‘AWAY-FROM’ manner in the same context of health, instead of what you want, you have in mind what you want to AVOID, i.e. poor health. Instead of that representation of what you DO want to be like, you have a clear idea of what you DON’T want to be like instead. You may be wanting to avoid a condition or disease that someone close to you as succumbed to because of their ill-health, or a weight you don’t want to be, perhaps noticing that your clothes are getting a little snug, or just simply that you’ve decided that “I don’t want to be fat anymore.”

Each choice you make therefore is no longer motivated by something positive; instead it’s usually fear, perhaps tinged with guilt and frustration every time you slip up.

“Surely though,” you may say, “any motivation is good as long as you can maintain it..?”

And I’d agree wholeheartedly with you because that’s what creates the fundamental difference between AWAY-FROM and TOWARDS motivation. TOWARDS motivation has a destination in mind and motivation is generally maintained until that destination is reached. On the other hand, however, AWAY-FROM motivation only exists as long as the problem exists – as soon as you’ve moved just far enough to think you’ve got away from the thing you fear, motivation dies.

With the health example we’ve already touched on, someone AWAY-FROM motivated will maintain their new behaviours only until their clothes begin to feel comfortable again, or they feel a little better, and then the old behaviours creep back in and the cycle will repeat.

Here’s another quite serious example – relationships. If you’re TOWARDS motivated in the relationship stakes, you have in mind the kind of relationship you’re after (maybe even a particular person, in which case may I refer you to the last two ‘slices’ on Desire..?) and will work towards that, not settling for second-best and, if you’re ethical about it, not seeking to force someone you think you’d like to be with to become what you want either – instead you stop, take stock and move on.

If, however, you’re unfortunately AWAY-FROM motivated in the realm of relationships, you’re either motivated by avoiding being alone, in which case you’ll tend to settle for anyone that seems on the surface to be half-decent, or you’re motivated by avoiding a bad relationship and again will settle for anyone that doesn’t qualify as ‘too bad’. And in the usual cycle of relationships, the AWAY-FROM strategy often results in exactly the thing you don’t want to happen actually happening simply because you’ve settled for something just outside ‘poor’.

As you perhaps think about other contexts too – e.g. your finances, your career, how tidy your house is – you’ll begin to realise that there’s pretty much no way that TOWARDS and AWAY-FROM ideas can produce similar results; TOWARDS always has you pursuing your goal, whilst AWAY-FROM keeps you just one step ahead of failure.

There’s tons more I could say about this concept but the essence is that TOWARDS motivation produces better, longer-lasting, more fulfilling and satisfying results, whilst AWAY-FROM behaviour is only capable of producing short-term relief from an underlying, nagging anxiety about whether you’ve done enough for now or not.

And so to a bit of a challenge:

Pick the area of your life that you’re least satisfied with (if you’ve not already done it, you could take our active living survey…)

As you think about that area of life, what is it that you feel?

For example, it may be that money management is an issue, and you feel anxious as you think about it.

Ask yourself, “What is it that I want in that area of my life?”

Notice how you reply, and whether your answer is about what you DO want, or is about what you DON’T want.

For example, you may say to yourself, “I want a financially secure future.”

Now ask, “Why is that important to you..?”

Notice how you reply, and whether your answer is again about what you DO want, or is about what you DON’T want.

For example, you may say, “Because my parents had to struggle and I don’t want that to happen to me and my family.”

If both your answers have been positive up to now, ask again, “What is THAT important to you..?” and again note whether your answer is a DO want (a TOWARDS) or a DON’T want (an AWAY-FROM).

If all three of your answers are TOWARDS, there’s usually only one of two reasons why; either

  1. You already have a goal and a plan in place for that area of your life and are currently working towards it but aren’t there yet.
  2. You’re not being honest with yourself and are forcing yourself to try to be positive in order to avoid feeling anxious, guilty or afraid.

(If you did get three TOWARDS’s in your answers and you’re still convinced it’s not because of one of the above two reasons, I’d love to hear from you..!)

Obviously, if you got one or more AWAY-FROMs in your answers, that’s probably why that area of your life isn’t great and it’s time to get a TOWARDS mindset sorted out.

So how do we go from AWAY-FROM to TOWARDS..?

That’s what we’ll talk about next time. Unless of course you’re TOWARDS motivated about knowing, in which case you’ll get in touch before then or leave a comment below. Oh, and if you feel you’re missing out on something (AWAY-FROM), you can email me or comment too…

Until then,

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