October 17, 2014

Weight Loss: Is it the Wrong Type of Motivation?

Written by Rachel Eddins

weight loss empty plate Recently, Amy Wrzesnieswski and Barry Schwartz wrote an article in the New York Times titled “The Secret of Effective Motivation.” They studied two types of motivations: internal and instrumental.

Internal motivation or sometimes known as intrinsic motivation is a desire that is based on the actual activity. For instance, a student wants to study in order to master the information and learn.

In instrumental or sometimes called extrinsic motivation, the student wants to study so they can make good grades and get a monetary reward from their parents. We can boil many of our behaviors down to one or a combination of both of these motivations.

This article helps us understand what type of weight loss motivation is most successful.

 External Weight Loss Motivation Goals are Counterproductive 

One might assume that a mix of these motivations would predict the greatest success. Take for example the idea of the student who is internally motivated to learn and knows that a honor or tangible reward will follow.  Seems like it would be a no brainer.

Interestingly, Wrzesnieswki and Schwartz report it is internal motivation that wins in studies. Most surprisingly, instrumental (external) motives are actually counterproductive and predictive of failure and dropout.

They point out that those with strong internal motivation may reap the rewards or instrumental consequences, but it isn’t the reason behind their motivation.

After reading this article, I immediately thought about the many wonderful people I meet who want to change their relationship with food and their bodies.  Often, they come with the goal, “I want to lose weight.”

Their motivation initially is often based on their outward appearance and perceived judgment by others. The pain and shame of living in their bodies is more than anyone should endure.

But, if this motivation was enough, why doesn’t it work? I think this article helps us understand why and guides in how to make true change.

Why are we are motivated to care for our bodies, spirits and minds?

  • Are we motivated to exercise so that we can have muscles that bulge, look good in a bathing suit (instrumental)?
  • Or because we love the feeling of being strong, healthy and independent (internal)?


  • Do we eat healthy natural foods to nourish, satiate and satisfy (internal)?
  • Or to change the numbers on the scale (instrumental)?


Many clients enter my doorway so desperate to lose weight, look better, or feel that they can fit into our thin-focused culture that checking in with their own internal motivation doesn’t even take place. It is here that I believe the true journey begins.

By clearing away the promise of the instrumental rewards that usually are paid by deprivation, shame and hopelessness, one can begin to develop a more peaceful relationship with their bodies, spirits and minds.

What I enjoy most about working with my clients on their journeys is that not one person has the same internal motivations as the other.  They are all unique and have nothing to do with a size or number.

Connecting with Your Values is Key to Weight Loss Motivation 

I often tell my clients that I, too, am a woman in this culture that imposes its narrow view of what I should look like.  I, too, have felt the desperation of not measuring up to expectations. When I think back to these moments, Wrzesnieswki and Schwartz seem right on target.

I have never been successful with instrumental motivation and certainly not happy. When I think about how exercise makes me feel energized, strong, capable, I am motivated to do more.

When I choose foods because I am paying attention to my body’s cues, I feel like my machine is working as it should and I can trust it.  My journey certainly has its good days and bad days but it never changes my goal.

I think that is what is the magical difference between internal and instrumental weight loss motivation.  When you are truly motivated intrinsically, the activity becomes an enjoyable journey in itself. And with that journey often comes instrumental rewards.

Finding our internal motivation is an elusive task at best. I think that when we dig deep into discovering our life values and placing them in a hierarchy we can begin to see if we are on “task” or not.  For instance, if I value my independence and self- sufficiency but am not exercising to remain strong, than I am not living according to my values.  There are many ways to find out what values are truly at our core. I believe therapy offers a collaborative exploration to discover what truly motivates us and how to change behaviors that conflict with where we want to go.


Next Steps

Click here to learn more or attend our Houston workshop. Participate in our 12-week group program to go in depth on making lifelong peace with food, mind, body & emotions. Our therapists in Houston can help you or your loved one recover. We also offer online therapy sessions throughout the state of Texas and several other states.

To get started now give us a call to schedule an appointment at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online.

Blog Categories