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The Neuroscience of Motivation

Strengthening your positive emotions and weakening your negative ones can have huge benefits for performance. Here's why.

The most recent newsletter from management coach Jon Pratlett explains that, when you encounter a difficult situation, your brain reacts differently when you say "I am…" as opposed to "I feel…" 

"Research suggests that when our brain's fight/flight response is activated and we become aware of it, saying to ourselves "I am angry," "I'm frustrated," or "I'm sad" is only likely to perpetuate the threat response."

The reason is simple. When you say "I am" you're making a statement about your identity, which implies the permanence of that emotion. You're saying to yourself "This feeling is who I am."

By contrast, if you characterize your emotion as something you feel, it doesn't imply permanence, since emotions are fleeting. Saying "I feel..." rather than "I am..." is more likely to result in:

"...a measurable shift in blood flow AWAY from the fight/flight centre and major muscle groups, and TOWARD the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the very part of the brain that cultivates witnessing, empathy, and problem-solving."

There's another level, though, that Pratlett doesn't mention, which consists of characterizing your emotions as something that you are "doing" rather than "feeling" or "being." Compare these three remarks:

  1. "I am frustrated."
  2. "I feel frustrated."
  3. "I'm doing frustration."

The third statement puts you in control of the emotion. Yes, you're feeling it, but because it's something that you're doing, you can stop doing it. In other words, you're putting your mental energy into solving the problem of the negative emotion.

This system also works for positive emotions, but the other way around. Compare the following three remarks:

  1. "I am motivated."
  2. "I feel motivated."
  3. "I'm doing motivation."

It's the first statement--the one that makes motivation a part of your identity--that creates the most power. The second statement not so much, while the third statement implies you're just "goin' through the motions."

In other words, if you want to become more successful, train your brain to:

  • Characterize negative emotions as what you're doing rather than what you're feeling or who you are.
  • Characterize positive emotions as who you are rather than what you're doing or feeling.


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Last updated: Jul 23, 2014


Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.

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