As a Family Guide at Akin, one of the questions I hear most often from loved ones of family members living with severe mental illness (SMI) is how they can motivate their loved one to do something differently. As a loved one myself of multiple family members living with SMI, I’ve asked these questions also. How can I get her to just go for a walk with me? How can I get him to accept therapy? How can I get them to choose to take medication? As I’ve researched the answer to this question, I’ve found answers both in the research and in my life experience.
I learned my first lesson about motivation as a young child. My grandfather had a pony, Sunny, who happily devoured thistles in the field every afternoon. Sunny notoriously had his own sense of timing in life. In the evening, when it would be time for him to return to the barn, we would pull his harness, push from behind, shake his grain bucket, offer him carrots, and swat his rump with the lead. And every day, Sunny would not budge. No amount of punishment or reward, threat or cajoling would get that pony to the barn.
Until he was ready.
Then, with a jolt, he would run to his stall and happily back himself in.
There’ve been many days in my life when I have been Sunny. Unable or unwilling to move myself from the place I’m standing. No words of hope or encouragement, or warnings of the consequences of staying put, have gotten me motivated.
Until I was ready.
I believe that many of us have experienced the same. Yet, in supporting my loved ones with severe mental illness, I often fail to remember my own days of doldrum, when motivation has eluded me. I see their pain and I want nothing more than to help heal it. To just fix it. Knowing that a walk around the block in the sunshine will break through a moment of sadness. Knowing that a warm shower will soothe aches and pains. Knowing that a sense of purpose and meaningful work will drive continued motivation. And I have sought answers everywhere to that burning question: how do you motivate someone with mental illness?
We know that many mental health conditions can cause a decrease in motivation, so much so that lack of motivation is one of the factors used to diagnose many mental illnesses. So, it’s no surprise that many of us find ourselves in this place. I first want to start by calling out that low motivation is NOT a character flaw in our loved ones. It is not laziness, and it is not a choice that someone can simply flip the switch on. One of my loved ones describes her motivation deficit from her bipolar depression as though someone has poured concrete around her hands and feet, and she becomes one with her recliner chair. So how can we help motivate our loved ones when they feel poured into concrete?
Two leading psychologists in the field of motivation, William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick define four fundamental principles of influencing the motivation of others:
The first thing we can do when our loved ones are stuck in a place of low motivation is find opportunities to truly partner with them. Partnership, in this context, means engaging collaboratively toward a common goal. It means that no one is pulling, and no one is pushing - we’re walking along together, keeping pace with one another. Sometimes, that means just showing up and sitting with them in the darkness. Sitting in the silence, and letting them know we are there for them in whatever way they need us. And when the moment is right, we can ask what matters most to them, right now, in this moment. And we must be prepared for the answer to be different than we hoped for.
We have to recognize that our desires may not be our loved one’s desires. We will inevitably have to accept that some things that matter to us, do not matter to our loved ones. On days when my loved one is stuck in concrete, what matters most, in that moment, is seeing the face of someone she loves, or having a comforting meal. It isn’t her long term treatment plan, or how she will get out of this episode of depression. Those pieces come later - when she feels safe, accepted and valued.
When we act with the genuine interest of our loved one’s wellbeing in mind, with a heart focused on their needs, we demonstrate compassion. In order to act with compassion we must first let our loved ones know that they are safe with us. We are not going to push them into territory that is too difficult or too painful. We show them that we accept them as they are, while valuing the person we know they will be. We can demonstrate our love for our loved one by expressing our desire for their life to be the fullest version of life that it can be today. And then the fullest it can be tomorrow.
Draw on their Strengths
When our loved ones are feeling the weight of low motivation, we can help them recall their own strengths and values. We can help them recall what has helped them take a step forward in the past. Perhaps it is their wit and sense of humor. Perhaps it is their desire to see others succeed. Maybe it’s their perseverance when things get tough. When our loved ones feel stuck, it is possible that they are ruminating on messages of all the reasons why they can’t or shouldn’t move forward, and we can help them change the script to all of the ways they succeeded before, and help them focus on the things that matter most to them in life.
Sometimes our loved ones may reach a point where they can’t imagine feeling enjoyment or meaning. It’s impossible to feel motivated when you 'know' that nothing will go well, and feel like it doesn't matter anyway. At that moment, we may be the only evidence our loved one has that this is not true. Change is difficult and slow when our loved ones’ symptoms reach this level, but it does happen, especially with persistent loving support.
Ultimately, when we approach our loved one’s lack of motivation, the most important thing to remember is that we can not motivate our loved ones. We can have a positive influence on their motivation, by partnering with them on what matters most to them, accepting them for who and how they are, while compassionately acting with their ultimate well-being in mind, and reminding them that they have the strength and motivation within them.
When they are ready.
At Akin, we know that loving an individual with mental illness requires much of us, and that facing our loved one’s lack of motivation is complicated, often frustrating and lonely. Join us for live workshops to connect with other members who have walked this path before, learn and practice communication skills and problem solving frameworks that can help you be more prepared for the next opportunity to influence your loved ones’ motivation.