When you step back and look at the landscape of your life, what drives you? What shapes what you do, not in terms of priorities—the things you focus on—but the engine that pushes your life along?
Seeing our lives as being driven is not new to psychology. Freud mapped out his 5 stages of development, that not only propel a child’s development but can shape the adult’s. And Maslow became famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, which moves up from the biological to self-actualizing. As these authors point out, there are good and bad drivers, but each sets the pace, the tone of our lives. We can choose what drives us, but the challenge is that we don’t choose. Instead, we accept what we get, or get used to, and call it life. We can change that, but first, we need to know where we stand.
Here are some of the most common drivers, ranked from those with the most significant positive impact (passions) to those providing the most negative impact (addictions). The line separates what we might consider adverse mental health from the positive.
Here we think of alcoholism, drugs, sex, workaholism. What makes them addictive is that they kidnap our brain. Rational thinking goes offline, our midbrain pleasure center takes over and we just do what we do because we do it. We’re the passenger, and our addiction is running our lives.
Unfortunately, this is the driver for too many of us. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety is the number one mental health problem in the U.S. affecting 18% of the population. It can take many forms—panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety, phobias. But regardless of the form, the impact is the same—our life is derailed. We worry, we avoid, we feel compelled to do things that we know are irrational, occupying too much of our time and mind.
Depression is the cousin of anxiety. Often, they go hand-in-hand. Worry leads to feeling overwhelmed, which can lead to feeling stuck or trapped, leading to feeling hopeless. When one or both of these take over, we are either always thinking about the what-ifs of the future or we a regretful and trapped by the past. The present dissolves into a blur.
While these are not formally diagnosable conditions, each has a negative impact on our life. Folks who are emotionally driven tend to run their lives based on how they feel. If they “feel” like cleaning up the house, they do; if they don’t, they don’t. While there’s an apparent spontaneity in their lives, they also struggle with the discipline needed to get things done that are difficult or necessary. They miss deadlines, problems get swept under the rug, they can seem to be unreliable to others.
Those driven by too many “shoulds” can go too far in the other direction. Rules run their lives. They can seem rigid with their black and white thinking and may feel guilty for breaking the rules. Because the rules are usually inherited from others, running our life this way often keeps us out of touch with our deeper needs and wants.
Finally, self-criticism is the bully who beats us up when we break the rules. Rather than enjoying our life, we spend much of our time trying to stay out of trouble with ourselves.
Routines are useful. Without them, our anxiety goes up and we are essentially forced to invent each day from scratch. But if our days become too routinized, we’re running on autopilot; there’s too little spontaneity, few opportunities for joy. Life is safe, but bland.
Setting goals and working towards them are good antidotes to routine’s downsides. We are proactive rather than reactive, creative rather than staid. But we can undermine our goals if we are also emotionally driven. When the going gets tough and the goals are not our own, we lose enthusiasm, or our expectations are unrealistic. When that happens, it’s easy for anxiety, self-criticism, and depression to take over.
Passion and purpose are at the top of the ladder because they arise from that core of who we are and want to be and carry none of the baggage of the others. When driven by passion and purpose, we are honest with ourselves and others. There is a natural integrity as our inner and outer lives reflect each other. We have the discipline to do what we want and need to do, yet can change our minds and be spontaneous without guilt or self-criticism.
So, when you step back and look at your life, what are your drivers? What keeps you from moving up that ladder? What do you need to do to reach greater fulfillment? How can you start today?
Find Your Drivers So You Can Climb Up The Ladder.
Straight roads do not make skillful drivers.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Some drivers in our lives are destructive or keep us from reaching our potential. By acknowledging them, we have the opportunity to focus on them and change them. Are we the drivers, anywhere? Or are we driven by drivers, everywhere?
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