What is the connection between self-esteem and motivation?

Published on May 29, 2022 by Cori Grămescu

During nutrition coaching sessions we often hear “I need to find the motivation to lose weight”, and people immediately correlate motivation with desired results. However, another subtle, but essential correlation lies between self esteem and motivation. Because the way we feel about ourselves has a lot to do with the way we build motivation and, subsequently, reach our goals. 

First, what is motivation and what is self-esteem? 

What is motivation

Motivation is a process that initiates, guides and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. The essence of motivation is action. Motivation is what makes you act, whether it’s weight loss, fitness, reading or drinking a glass of water to reduce thirst. 

What is self esteem

Self-esteem is a person’s overall subjective sense of self worth or value, or how much you like and appreciate yourself regardless of circumstances. This is to be differentiated from contingent self esteem, that is self esteem based on approval of others, or by comparison. If contingent motivation is our dominant, that is we need external validation from others to feel good about ourselves, this tends to negatively correlate with our well being. [1]

Connection between Self esteem and motivation

People who have a healthy self esteem feel that they are worthy intrinsically, and this is a psychological trait that tends to remain stable over time. They also display healthy levels of motivation and often find it easy to start acting. 

Self esteem is defined by many factors including the feeling of security, the feeling of competence, self-confidence, a sense of belonging and identity. Self esteem includes dimensions of self-respect, self-worth and self-care. 

While self-esteem is lowest during childhood and adolescence, it typically grows steadily over adulthood until it reaches a rather stable level. [2]

Healthy self esteem directly influences motivation

People who have healthy self esteem levels have realistic expectations of their abilities and themselves, that are appropriate for their objective. They also have a correct understanding of their skills and capabilities and can create realistic and appropriate expectations for their goals. In other words, they naturally feel what they should ask from themselves and what set of skills are optimal to accomplish their goals. 

Healthy self esteem directly influences motivation. Motivation consists of all the underlying forces that drive human action. When you understand what, when and how you can do certain things, your ability to act immediately manifests. 

Motivation refers to the factors that activate certain actions, but is not limited to those, alone. Motivation also includes the forces, the factors that direct and also maintain goal-oriented actions. In other words, motivation is about the specific process of doing, but also about the underlying reasons that push people to act. [3]

When we talk about motivation, we talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation roots in the individual’s internal pleasure and satisfaction and alignment with personal values and beliefs. Extrinsic motivation refers to doing things for external rewards – trophies, money, praise, social recognition. Much like self esteem, contingent self esteem and extrinsic motivation go hand in hand. Relying too much of your self identity on how others perceive you may leave you vulnerable to pleasing people and reduce wellbeing levels when others fail to recognize your worth. 

There are three different components of motivation. 

  1. Activation involved the decision to initiate a behavior, such as enrolling in a weight loss program. 
  2. Persistence is the continued effort towards a goal, even in the presence of various obstacles. Examples of persistence include pursuing your diet plan during plateau phases, meal prepping during busy work weeks or following current diet principles loosely while on holiday. 
  3. Intensity is the concentration and vigor that goes into pursuing a goal. In weight loss, we see people who immediately pick up the pace and energetically enroll in high intensity programs and they remain engaged effortlessly for long periods of time. We also see clients who start with a more relaxed dietary approach, go to Pilates workouts and prefer to invest a limited amount of time and energy in their process. The first category of clients pursue their goals intensely, while the latter lacks intensity. [4]

Having healthy self-esteem means that you can modulate all the three components of motivation by resorting to various emotional resources.  

For example, in the activation phase, people with good self esteem believe that they deserve the positive outcome of their desired behavior and they also have the ability to reach their goal. This positively impacts the decision to act immediately for the desired goal. 

Having realistic expectations of yourself and realistic appreciation of your skills and capabilities is another consequence of healthy self esteem. They also help build persistence, the second component of motivation, because one can naturally create a timeline that is attainable and realistic. Simply put, you calibrate your expectation based on the intimate knowledge that you can only do this much in a given time interval.

One can calibrate optimal intensity levels from a perspective of self care and self respect. Too much intensity might leave you exhausted and ultimately increase your chances of simply abandoning your goal. But self love, an essential component of self esteem, can help you intuitively choose a lesser intensity that will fill your needs of accomplishment without losing too much energy in the process. You can also compensate for a low intensity process with self respect. Do you respect yourself enough to put in the effort to reach a goal that you know and feel is really important for you? Most of the time, yes. Self respect is a component of self esteem, and this is just one example of how self esteem and motivation can directly influence each other and drive behavior.

In the weight loss world, we often say that a good routine beats motivation anytime, and by this we address one of the most common underlying pitfalls of motivation – an all-or-nothing mentality. Having good routines means that you create a flexible cognitive restraint to your craves, while reinforcing and optimizing positive behaviors that drive you closer to your goals. Reaching goals takes time, and sustainable weight loss is a fully personalized journey. There is not a one-size-fits all solution and even when you do manage to find a solution, it needs adjustments and calibration over and over again, as your body, hormones and behaviors change and evolve. 

The truth is these layers of motivation and self esteem are intimately related to how we manage to address body image and the expectations we cultivate from ourselves. Healthy self esteem shifts the energy from self doubt and weight-related insecurities to an active motivational input that drives change. Simply put, instead of feeling insecure and sorry for yourself, you re-energize yourself simply by acting to reach your goals. You can use the dis-satisfaction in a healthy way, to increase your motivation to change behaviors. 
A personalized weight loss journey that is fully calibrated for your needs, both nutritionally and emotionally will help you reach your goals, but at the same time will help you optimize for self esteem in a way that also improves motivation levels in all areas of your everyday life. [5]

Sources:

1. ​​van der Kaap-Deeder, Jolene et al. “The Pursuit of Self-Esteem and Its Motivational Implications.” Psychologica Belgica vol. 56,2 143-168. 13 Jul. 2016, doi:10.5334/pb.277)

2. Trzesniewski, Kali H et al. “Stability of self-esteem across the life span.” Journal of personality and social psychology vol. 84,1 (2003): 205-20.

3. Nevid JS. Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2013

4. Zhou Y, Siu AF. Motivational intensity modulates the effects of positive emotions on set shifting after controlling physiological arousal. Scand J Psychol. 2015;56(6):613-21. doi:10.1111/sjop.12247

5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5854109/#B16, van der Kaap-Deeder, Jolene et al. “The Pursuit of Self-Esteem and Its Motivational Implications.” Psychologica Belgica vol. 56,2 143-168. 13 Jul. 2016, doi:10.5334/pb.277

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