Internal motivation vs. external motivation: the need for balance

external motivation, personal growth, self improvement, self care
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Internal motivation happens when you do something because it pleases you inside. External motivation means seeking a reward outside of yourself, like money or recognition.

The college admissions scandal of 2019 showed how wrong things can go when you base your values on external rather than internal motivation.

The college admissions scandal of 2019 showed how wrong things can go when you base your values on external motivation rather than internal satisfaction. Click To Tweet

The parents in the admissions scandal wanted the prestige of a higher education for their children even if it meant committing a crime.

When you’re driven by external motivators, it’s easy to cross over into deception. When your values misalign with who you are inside, it’s easy for your moral compass to become skewed.

When you're driven by external motivators, it's easy to cross over into deception. Click To Tweet

Internal motivation, on the other hand, means doing something for the pure pleasure of it, or because it fulfills you in some way. You tune out what people might think and tune into what you desire.

While external motivation is not always bad, we need to make sure to keep it in check. Here are three ways to know when your external motivation is out of balance and what to do about it.

1. You’ve lost the joy

In our culture, money is a huge motivator. If you love something and are good at it, people assume you should seek to be paid for it.

For example, I first started blogging for the sheer pleasure of writing, researching, and learning how to develop a new platform.

Soon enough, companies started dropping into my email with requests for me to write sponsored posts. It seemed like a dream to write blog posts for money.

However, I could no longer write about what I wanted. I had to gear the content toward the advertiser.

Writing my blog for money took away the pleasure and made it into a chore. It no longer fulfilled me or gave me a creative outlet.

The external motivation removed the joy for me, so I released the sponsors and went back to blogging for myself and my reader.

The answer: when you do something for the joy and love of it, that isn’t necessarily a sign you have to make a living from it.

Internal motivation says creative fulfillment can be payment enough.

2. You’re focused on recognition

Are you setting goals based on what others will think of you? Instead of checking in with your heart’s desire, you think about how much others will admire you.

Are you setting goals based on what others will think of you? Click To Tweet

The status and recognition of achieving the goal attract you more than the personal fulfillment. If you were the only person on earth, there’s no way you’d pursue this goal.

When you’re over focused on external validation, the process of achieving a goal will soon lose its luster.

If you’re more interested in the external reward that only comes once you’ve achieved the goal, you’re more likely to give up before you arrive there.

It will be hard to maintain the stamina needed to push through all the tedious tasks that precede success.

If you’re more interested in fame than the creatve process, for example, performing in obscurity will be painful.

The answer: when you derive pleasure from the art itself, you’ll enjoy the process whether or not you become famous as a result.

3. You refuse to take risks

If you refuse to take risks due to fear of failure or how others will perceive you, that’s external motivation, too.

It’s impossible to grow when we stay inside our comfort zones. When you avoid trying something new because of how others might react, you lose the opportunity to know yourself better.

It's impossible to grow when we stay inside our comfort zones. Click To Tweet

Or you refuse to pursue something that sets your heart on fire because you’re afraid to sacrifice income for the short term. Is financial security so important you’d compromise the call of your soul?

The answer: take the risk to do what you were created to do. The short term discomfort will pay off in long-term life satisfaction and fulfillment.

Surround yourself with like-minded people who understand that a life of integrity requires a certain amount of risk.

Final thoughts

Honoring your internal motivations helps you align with your values. Rather than pursuing goals for external rewards and punishments, you’re going after what truly lights you up.

Letting go of what people think and following instead what fulfills you will improve your quality of life immeasurably. You move away from the world’s definition of success and closer to your own.

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  1. Yeah. I agree with your insight on this. The most surprising thing for me was the apparent “surprise” that it was happening. Just look at the kinds of people involved. Not from a singular & individualistic viewpoint. But rather the positions/fame/whatever if those involved. I’m not suggesting stereotyping or profiling,. Just more awareness, if you will.
    Peace, Love, and Understanding!
    We’ll cya’ll down the road!

    • admin

      Thanks for your comment. I’m naive when it comes to human nature so admit to being among the surprised. I understand people lie but to do so in such a sustained and systematic way shocked me.