(Psychological Literacy)
Adam Blatner, M.D.

(This is the second lecture of this 6-lecture module on self-awareness that is part of a longer series on Psychological Literacy, offered to the Senior University Georgetown lifelong learning program, for its Fall 2009 program. Eventually, more of the series will be posted on this website. This second lecture was given on October 5, 2009 (re-posted October 12, 2009)

This series of lectures will include: 1. An orientation to the process of self-awareness.    2. (This lecture) Motivations and Ideals         3. Wiser and More Foolish Coping Maneuvers          4. Body Cues and Other Subtle Perceptions     5. Social Connectedness and Preferences
        6. Spiritual Self-Awareness, Meaning and Conclusion.

As I prepared for this lecture I became aware of the many human needs---just a few of which are listed at the bottom of this webpage. Indeed, there are so many that a leisurely discussion of them could take many, many lectures. (I may even create another supplementary website that does consider some of the other motivations in more detail.) However, I think that what needs to happen first is to discuss about twelve or so underlying principles in thinking about motivation.
The first thing I want to say is that the ideal of reductionism a century ago is to boil down all the many human motivations to one or two or a few. Looking back, this was foolish, unnecessary, and slowed down the appreciation of the real issues in psychology. So it’s not all sex, nor all inferiority complex, nor all anythings. We don’t need to reduce it this way. Let’s just acknowledge that the human mind is complex, inclined to expand and explore in many ways, and is inspired by many types of motivations. .

Let’s pause, though, remind ourselves that the framework of this class and all these lectures is the greater game of becoming an artist of your own life, to learn some practical principles of psychology in the service of self-management, self-creativity, renewal.

I also mentioned the principle of recognizing yourself as the artist here. Identify consciously with that part of yourself that is not just aware, but aware that you’re aware, and aware of the part of yourself that can use that awareness in the service of self-management. This is your inner CEO, the part that can step back from the many roles you play and ask yourself, do I want to play these roles in this way, am I overbalanced this way or that?

The second principle is to know that people tend to get out of balance: the nature of development itself involves overshooting or undershooting the mark in any endeavor. Self-awareness is another word for getting feedback about how you’re doing: Are you too much or too little? Could you balance it a bit better?


The third principle is to know that society, culture, habit tend to dull this sharpness. You become used to whatever you’re doing. It stops occurring to you—if it ever did—hey, might I actually enjoy doing it a bit more, at least in this circumstance? Or perhaps I could do it less considering this other situation? You can easily fall into a rut, and it is human to do so. It is also uniquely human, though not often enough exercised, to notice that you’ve gotten in a rut and want to become more mentally flexible, want to have a broader repertoire of possibilities in your life.

The Temptation to Stifle

The fourth principle is to notice that there are a number of reasons to not desire, not want, not be creatively dissatisfied. There are a number of internal and external pressures to not rock the boat. Thinking means daring to consider that what is may not be the best way for things to be, and if others have also gotten used to what is—socially, politically, religiously, educationally, television programs, routines, family dynamics—they’ll try to dampen your artistic desire to recreate your role. Creativity makes trouble, changes the status quo, challenges assumptions. To avoid being criticized, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.

So the motivation to get along, be in relationship, may require a bit of amputation of the engaged, active, exploratory mind and a lapsing back into passivity. This can involve only one or two roles or the entire personality, depending on how independent your thinking has been and how up-tight your environment was.

Taken to an extreme, old-fashioned work, religion, parenting, and society tended to be somewhat stifling of individuality and as a result, in order to cope, young people learned how to numb their own minds in a variety of ways.

One way to cope with stifling social pressures, some people sought not death itself—well, a few sadly did suicide—but many worked out a compromise. We should recognize this deadening to be one of the most pervasive and least addressed motivations; it is the motivation to be dull, almost dead, nothing, just get by, don’t make trouble, whatever, work on standby, enjoy a little television, and indeed, this pattern accounts for a lot of problems. Alcohol helps, and staying literally drunk was a very common phenomenon especially in the late 18th century in Europe and America.

There is a spectrum here of degrees of deadness beyond actually being incapable of having any fun at all—which is being biologically actually dead. Being dead drunk comes close, it’s sort of like staying in bed with the covers pulled up. Many depressives use that last technique. Then there’s being a little more alive—sustaining marginal personal hygiene and home maintenance, but burying yourself in television and a bit of beer, “vegging out,” (short for vegetating). A step up involves a lifetime overly devoted to sunbathing, hot-tubbing, napping, solitaire—oh, yeah, of course there’s television. Now with the iPod there’s also being hypnotized by music, and I suspect Text-messaging can reach this level of semi-consciousness. All this is in contrast to other ends of the spectrum where you’re more engaged in life, and perhaps at the other end, there’s even a kind of hypnosis in the other direction—you’re completely alert, on, hyped-up, energized, but it’s focused on one thing, such as not falling off of the cliff you’re climbing.

Another spectrum may involve how many roles are energized—one role, fixated, could be dull-drunk or fixated gambling with one game—and the other role overly scattered, jack of all trades, going, doing, but having nothing special that’s a focus. Once again, though, you’re getting the idea that there may be a balance.

“Just Right”

The fifth principle, then, is to be aware that finding the balance for you is part of the art. Now one thing that makes this more of an art is that each individual needs to decide for him- or herself what’s right, and then needs to re-decide again in a few months or years. It’s a lively process. There’s no one else who can with real authority determine how much or little playfulness or work or any other mix of qualities you should create for your life now. But on the other hand, you should not assume that whatever you’ve consciously or—more often—subconsciously—decided on in the past still is right for you. You’ve matured, new possibilities are open, there are new playmates available. You can stop and re-consider—and of course this is the whole point of this class and lecture series—and re-engage with new vigor.

I have created a funny theory called vaguely quantitative psychology. There’s a lot of quantitative psychology going on, and has been for a century, and these folks really try to be precise. But I don’t know how much really good stuff has come out of all these efforts—maybe 3.5%   I just make up numbers like that—knowing I’m wrong—but also communicating some hunch about the proportion. That’s vaguely quantitative psychology.

Where this approach makes most sense is simply to invite others to feel into the following idea: For any variable—and it’s best if it applies to something you’re dealing with really in your life—there’s a too much and also a too little. That’s the quantitative idea. I don’t have to be precise, you can feel it. Whenever you balance, you feel yourself too much this way and too little that way and you re-balance—you do it a thousand times a day with your balance, the temperature, boredom, needing to take a deep breath, hunger, everything, just about.

The sixth principle derives from this and is interesting. Some things are sold to us by society, culture, books, as good, and some things are bad. It turns out that it’s often true that too much good is bad, and too little bad is bad. Let me explain.

Shame and guilt is bad, right? Well, too much guilt and shame makes for the classical neuroses that filled the psychoanalysts’ offices in the mid-20th century. But too little shame and guilt? Bernie Madoff, the con artists, the psychopaths. We want to yell, “have they no shame?”  I figure we should raise our kids with maybe 4-9% shame and guilt. Not more, but not less. The lower edges of these ranges are for the more sensitive kids. A little dose works. The higher ranges for the more hard-headed kids. But still you don’t want to overdo it.

Same with fear. A little healthy fear is known as safety instruction. Again, maybe 4-9%, enough so they hesitate else they “get into trouble.”

How about being silly and crazy and goofball? This is a favorite topic for me, because I think most people aren’t playful enough. Now I’m not proposing that most folks spend most of their time, or even more than, say, 14.6% of their time goofing around. But if they’re not doing it at least 5% then they’re taking themselves and their lives too seriously and need to lighten up a bit.

I don’t know that psychiatrists or psychologist recognize this fact. I haven’t seen it in the literature yet. Maybe a few folks. And at conferences, I like them but also, at psychiatric conferences, for years, I felt something was off. Finally I realized that this was it: Psychiatrists and other mental health workers are taught to be serious—which is okay, in proportion—but they’re also not taught to at times lighten up, come off it. They don’t have any idea what coming off it would be----off their helpful, concerned roles, nice or strict, whatever, but never playful. Anyway, you can explore this in your own life and ask if you’ve gotten too much or too little or just about right for a whole mess of different motives and activities.


The seventh generalization I can say about motivation is that trying to name the specific type will be inadequate because there is an natural tendency for the mind to explore in so many ways. I don’t just mean physically exploring the environment, climbing, swimming, learning a wider range of skills, but also exploring the socio-cultural environment. This includes learning to fool around with languages, fantasies, the limits of rules—you’ve heard of lines like “he’s testing limits,”— all sorts of boundaries.

So while some people get frightened of adventure, other non-stifled kids expand, and many people combine the two—they limit themselves in certain taboo areas while they expand in more approved or neutral areas. Let’s find out how we can do this whatever thing more interestingly, effectively. Let’s build a longer bridge, a higher building, let’s bring democracy to people who want it—well, maybe 20% want it—and 40% hardly know what we’re talking about. Let’s build a more beautiful garden, and so forth.


The eighth point about motivation is that much exploration is put into a frame called play—a frame in which thoughts, words, and actions don’t count. It’s a sort of laboratory—and what a laboratory is about, if you think about it, is a place where the game is to try out an idea on a scale small enough so that if it doesn’t work it’s no big deal. This gives scientists more courage to try things out. In other words, play depends on the degree of consequence: When the price is the risk of death or serious or debilitating injury or the loss of great amounts of money, however it might have started as play, it ends up crossing the line to work and taking things “too seriously.”

The point here is that we combine motivations all the time—let’s explore and let’s do it as safely as possible. Some explorations we can do just in fantasy play, and for kids that seems to work.


I mentioned that we play many roles—not just in sequence, as that passage from Shakespeare suggested, but also at the same time. And if we’re slow or not that good in one role, we may turn instead to another role where our exploration is more fun, less frustrating, and perhaps more in accord with our natural talents.

So the ninth principle reoognizes the prevalence of the dynamic of compensation, and it really partly belongs to next week’s lecture on coping mechanisms. But it is so close to motivation, too: If I’m good this way and this way and that way, it doesn’t matter or makes up for the fact that I’m not so good, I’m maybe timid and/or lazy, etc.. in other roles. This is partly valid, but it all depends on keeping an alert management attitude about what is relevant, what not needed, what is rank avoidance of something that really needs attending to!

Avoidance of Negative Emotion

The tenth principle is that emotions such as shame, guilt, and fear are significant enough to drive a good deal of behavior. I was reading a book about poop, feces—it’s in our local library, a fascinating book titled “the Big Necessity,” and one chapter deals with efforts to motivate village people in India to use the new outhouses. It’s not easy to get folks to change their ways. They use the negative emotion of disgust to help them with their efforts towards this end, showing pictures and movies of fly-feces-food contamination. At any rate, any discussion of motivation should note that in some situations it’s the negative emotion that gets the highest priority.

Growing Away from the Inner Child

The eleventh principle involves the recognition that there are another two emotions that sort of overlap on another level with the desire to engage and the desire to coast, and these involve the desire to grow up and not be a baby, and the desire to hold on to the prerogatives of being as much of a little kid as we can, as long as it’s denied. Someone once defined teenagers are people who act like kids if they’re not treated as adults.

The eleventh principle in another sense is the recognition that people work out compromises, consciously or unconsciously. We’ll here this idea not only in the way people are neurotic, but also how they’re consciously creative. The point is that certain acts do draw on both the more childish and more mature emotions, and sometimes that comes off in a very adaptive fashion. Sometimes, though, it is more illusory—and we’ll talk about that next time.

The twelfth principle notes that it is both possible and desireable to become more grown up and better able to explore and manage independently in the world while finding some creative ways to preserve the best of the qualities that had in the past been associated with childhood---especially imaginativeness, spontaneity, playfulness, expressiveness, sensuality, exuberance, playfulness, and vulnerability. This in a sense has elements of compromise and creativity, but it can be done wisely.
Vulnerability is an interesting category: Can we retain a measure of sensitivity, be open to our needs, without being childishly excessive in our demandingness? This is part of the art and skill of the aforementioned self-management. 

Cleaning Up Unfinished Business

The thirteenth principle is that there are certain desires to grow, heal, adapt, become wiser, and if they're given some encouragement and guidance, may be recognized as a type of motivationIn in itself. Part of healing or growing may be framed thus: Some ways people are like computers in that they carry forward the programing of their operating system—the ways they think—from mid-childhood and these get covered over with increasingly complex disguises, but this childish thinking continues. In a few ways maturation happens biologically—such as the introduction at puberty of the ability to become sexually aroused to the point of orgasm. But in many other ways, if you don’t consciously try to become self-aware of obsolete programs and then to correct them, those patterns of thinking and behaving will continue to operate in a deeply and subtly childish fashion.

Extrinsic Motivations and False Self

Let’s turn now to extrinsic sources of motivation. That means that in addition to what we want from our own instincts, there are a lot of things we are taught to want, to value, and to avoid. Now many of these values are fairly enduring, but some are obsolete and others are in the process of being challenged or refined.

For example, most people are given the message that there is status and positive reinforcement in being more aligned with the stereotypes associated with your biological gender. Boys should become manly, women feminine. But those stereotypes are themselves undergoing revision, so that, for example, today men should not be too “macho” as to avoid helping the wife with child care. What? This wasn’t in the job description when I was growing up. Many gender stereotypes are thus breaking down, and the emergence of not just working women, but retired adults also change the nature of the game. There are just too many women who have become tired of their gender role expectations and don’t want to live up to them any more.

So motives conflict—and they always have. Part of me wants to live up to my values as I’ve picked them up from books and teachers and friends and parents, and part of me doesn’t buy those beliefs and attitudes—or at least some of them.   
(Inserted 10/12/09):

Three More Types of Motives—Lures, Injunctions, and Illusions

In addition, there are three other categories that are sort of like motivations. One category I call lures. On the positive side, these become interests, causes, ideals, and my point is that they can become more prominent as motivations—beyond mere curiosity in general, and becoming more focused. What is discovered may then be amplified, deepened, promoted, taught, turned into a product that can be sold, and all these then become potential motives—the so what are you going to do about it. Ideals become political projects with all the component skills involved. Topics become themes for thought and teaching—such as this lecture series.

Some lures are perhaps unhealthy, such as some addictions. Others are ambiguous—perhaps not for me to judge. They may be eccentric, but don’t really hurt anyone. And all sorts of other variations.

The second category I’ll call injunctions. These are statements of you should, or implied standards to live up to, developed by a person’s relevant culture or sub-culture. Sometimes it’s the sub-culture that suggests that a person identifying with that demographic or seeking status, consciously or unconsciously, should rebel against the mainstream culture. We’ve seen that generation gap more prominently for the last century or more—hippies, rock n roll, flappers— and the glamour of the bohemian artist—but some of the early 19th century romantic poets and musicians were a bit counter-culture, too.

Anyway, the key here is that these imposed ideas are often adopted and then must be cooked with: Some you might choose to agree with, and some not—but the key skill for creative living and vitality is that you allow yourself the freedom and luxury to re-evaluate and re-decide, rather than thinking that the decisions made a generation or decade ago still stand and don’t need to be thought about. I confess my bias here: I think we should floss our teeth daily and figuratively floss our mind, or get a routine servicing of our automobile or computer every year or so, and perhaps treat our souls with as much attention.

Inner Illusions

There are another class of sort-of motivations that derive from childish wishes: I want life to be what I define as fair, as easy rather than difficult, as simple to understand, and so forth. I explain these in a related webpage called “the inner brat;” and this complex suggests that part of our immature self remains or tries to remain because familiarity is easier to cope with than change. And also it wants to believe its expectations are realistic, fair (to the individual—but questionably fair to others), and so forth. So these are something between drives like sex and hunger and exploratory play and the desire to be more. (These various motivations inevitably conflict with each other and generate tendencies not only to cope consciously and intelligently, but also to generate symbolic and illusory, foolish coping maneuvers to be discussed in the next lecture.)

Individualism and the Common Good

There’s an interesting balance here that illustrates this problem: From the nineteenth century on, the value of cultivating individuality has become more prevalent. What then is the individual’s duty to the community? This is not a simple question, but has many levels and facets. It also bridges into a broader philosophy of life.

I find that Alfred Adler, one of Freud’s early colleague-students—he was a fully qualified physician and not a mere disciple—Adler went on not only to define the inferiority complex and made other substantial contributions to understanding, but his best contribution, I think, was a healthier and very timely idea of what mental health or the healing of neurosis should be about. He found that many forms of neurosis involve a trying to be better than others, or at least not so inferior— attitudes that are very much reinforced by our highly competitive culture. Adler proposed a healthier alternative—and I’m not sure any other major therapist has done this: People need to shift their basic attitude towards what he called Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, a gefuehl being a feeling for and a Gemeinschaft best translated as a voluntary not business community. A feel for community, a caring about we-ness. Happiness comes with helping things get better, not from being one-up.

I think right now our culture is very much in a state of confusion about how to be happy—this is a deep values issue—often disguised by superficial religiosity. Those who have the most stuff win— does the person live as if that’s the primary rule? Lots of folks do.

I confess that the problem of we-ness is cloudy, confused, because there is widespread suspicion of how collective action should be managed so that it doesn’t drift into the worst examples too much local or regional or national or international government. But too little collective care and endeavor also has its downside. In our cultural ambivalence, people also have trouble finding their own source of identity—how much am I a we and how much an I and in what ways?  I offer no simple solutions—except to note that too much I as a general value generates neurosis and sociopathy.

Overriding Feelings

One of the more pervasive forms of anti-self-awareness is the human tendency to come to believe in certain standards and rules that require that we override our awareness of certain feelings, preferences, doubts, and so forth. We’re supposed to like certain people or ideas and we try to convince ourselves that we do; we’re supposed to like or love people who have evoked in us more than indifference, but actual hate—and we learn to believe that we have made ourselves do this, and that we are virtuous because of that. We’re supposed to fear and dislike certain types of persons—as the song in South Pacific goes, “You’ve got to be carefully taught”— and we learn to believe in all this.

The problem here is that these over-riding mechanisms participate in the construction of a false self, a who-we-think-we-are. For many people, who they think they are is who they think they should be. For some, who they think they are is not as good but still trying, compared to who they think they should be. For some who they think they should be is far beyond who they think they are, which is is, for some, below humble—it’s pathologically loser, low self-esteem, me/ aw, shucks, Ma’am.  And for some, they try to put on a facade of being better than they know themselves to be. There are other combinations and permutations, but that gives a sense of the complexity of the false self.

This kind of hypocrisy became more vivid to the youth of the late 1940s and through the 50s, where the term “phoney” was used by the beatniks and by Holden Caufield, the late-adolescent hero of The Catcher in the Rye. It signaled at least an effort to be more authentic, although what that consisted of still hadn’t been worked out. But it might be said of the whole psychoanalytic movement in the early-to-mid 20th century is that it was trying to counter the self-deceptive rigidity of stiff-upper-lip habits of mind of the mid-19th through early 20th centuries. As an aside, while psychoanalysis has not held up as a total psychology, it did speak to this dialectic at the time and highlight the validity of what in the Twelve Step Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous was called the fourth step of taking a “fearless moral inventory.”

An important aspect of self-awareness development involves countering those mental maneuvers and habits that tend to avoid or deny that which doesn’t fit with what feels safe. The motive here is a mixture of wanting to be liked and maintain positive relations with peers and other important people, and this is added to by growing notions of status, what is “cool,” fashionable, or admirable in the teen years, what is respectable and worthy of envy in adulthood, and so forth.

In other words, we want to “be” and be seen as one who embodies what we imagine is desired, admired, and so forth, and as a consequence, we collude with what we imagine “they” want to suppress, grow beyond, or rise above those qualities that we imagine evoke the opposite reactions. This generates a self that is often untrue to our real set of preferences, abilities, interests and other more authentic feelings. Some have said that we develop a false self and put aside the real self. That’s a little global, however.

Let’s say that certain of our talents or natural inclinations are honored and cultivated, certain others are indeed neglected and repressed. For many, the divergence is not too great, but for a surprising number of others, the cost of this partial charade is high.

There are several grades of hypocrisy, though. In some, the person is quite aware of true self preferences and shares them with discreet and selected others. This might be called political savvy.

In the next level, again the person is explicitly aware of the need to hide or defer one’s personal choices in order to gain acceptance—or at least escape persecution. There may be some confusion though about who and what one “really” is.

At one more level into the depth of the dynamic, the person doesn’t know he’s accommodating his own self or set of authentic preferences in favor of what others want and value. He may range at this level from feeling vaguely phoney to fully embracing the “false self” identity. (Some go overboard and take on a role of persecuting those who overtly express what is unconsciously repressed.)

Finally, there may be a mixture of responses for each of a number of component variables, roles, aspects of the self. The point to be made, though, is that this whole dynamic deserves to be recognized as something that self-awareness needs to encounter and minimize.


While I disagree with Freud about a number of details and his way of operating, his tendency to be dogmatic in certain ways and limited, what I do concede is that Freud opened up a particular issue: You can’t just pretend that the dark side doesn’t exist. You need to know it’s there and consciously channel your better strengths and ideals around it, work with petty tendencies and childish desires to help them mature. Mere avoidance ends up backfiring, because life, libido, will assert itself. We see the grass growing through cracks in the pavement, we see new forms of antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerging.

So, self-deception and avoidance doesn’t work very well in many cases. What part of the mind wants to do, if denied, will find a sneakier symbolic expression through psychosomatic illness, being attracted to cults or movements whose leaders express the otherwise disowned traits, various types of neurotic symptoms, and so forth.

Supplementary List:

(and how they may be cultivated or distorted)

The following list is meant to be neither authoritative nor comprehensive, but rather suggestive of the general idea of the range of types and their vicissitudes.
   This also relates to my theory of vaguely quantitative psychology and webpage, "A Little Bit"

Type of Need or Motivation
Healthy Expression
Some Distortions
(too much/too little)

     Mature sexuality
     Intimacy, sensuality
    Inhibition, compulsion
     Perversions (?)
Initiative, determination
Self-assertion   Self-affirmation
Dominance, Sadism,
  Rage, violence, Submissiveness  
       Social needs  
       Community and
      family involvements
      Alienation, isolation,
   compulsive togetherness
    Being touched
  snuggling, hugging, massage
 warm baths, clean sheets, etc.
Restriction to
 genital sexuality
  Moderation, enjoyment
     good cooking
   Gluttony, anorexia
Questioning,   iconoclasm
Rebelliousness, prissiness
Enjoyment of
        fears of success
Healthy self-
Pridefulness, not
  accepting help
  use of help
  passivity, whiny
Taking care of  one's own
  soul, health, and extending
  care to the world
Egocentricity, pettiness
  short-term goal
  Respecting the value of what one has to offer
 Self-absorbtion, sense of entitlement, pathological narcissism,
  excessively deferential, inferiority complex
          A sense of the dramatic, vitality,
  Histrionic, volatile, manipulative, repressed
 Aesthetic depth, Spiritual sensitivity,
  Naive credulity, or its opposite,
    cynicism, denseness
 creative daydreaming, playfulness,
   Shallow,  compulsive or avoidant fantasy,
  Coping with  loss           Letting go, a  capacity for grieving   Depression, indifference
Self-awareness, reflectivity
  Envy, jealousy, defeatism
  Philosophy, science, learning
  Over-intellectualism, denseness, anti-intellectualism
  (Stupidity: The illusion that what one knows is sufficient.)
 Mutuality, non-hostile humor
  One-upsmanship, over-seriousness
    Balanced co-creation
 Over-controlling, victim
Discrimination, making boundaries
Defensiveness, avoidance
Frustration- Tolerance
Self-discipline, patience
 Willfulness, defeatism, impulsivity

 Here are some others or variations of those basic motivations:

 • feeling power, mastery, triumph
 • obtaining attention, approval, interest
 • being sexy, sensual, feeling desirable
 • general sensuality, enjoying pleasant tastes, smells, textures, sounds, colors, etc.
 • becoming dizzy, intoxicated, ecstatic
 • stretching the imagination in learning, fantasy
 • expanding the sense of self through role-taking
 • competitive challenge, aggressiveness, risk-taking
 • being supported, reassured, treated gently
 • creative expression through art, dance, poetry, etc.
 • feeling independent, free, the sense of adventure
 • avoiding or mastering experiences that represent states of  deprivation or frustration of the other motives

• Are some dimensions being suppressed? Is this causing problems?
• If some roles are expressing an excessive or distorted motivation, can the essential need be recognized?
• Might roles expressing one facet of the personality be overdeveloped in part because others are being neglected?   
• Are there any important dimensions of personal developmentwhich are being repressed or denied, and could other actions express efforts to compensate for or disguise these needs?

          For suggestions regarding revision or additions, feel free to email me: adam@blatner.com