“I think it all comes down to motivation. If you really want to do something, you will work hard for it.”
Edmund Hillary


I have been chewing over my furtive attraction for motivational YouTube videos recently. Embarrassing though this is, I admit it, I’m a sucker for a good motivational speech. In the world of psychology, I imagine these often cheesy or trite performances can be seen as a bit of therapeutic candy floss, you know, little nutritional value but harmless…as long as you don’t gorge on it all day.

So why am I, and clearly many others, so drawn to them? What is it that makes them so appealing?

Well, I have a theory… I think that my fix is actually an attempt to meet a much deeper need… 

Now before you click the red “x” button to close this page, give me a moment to justify my idea (and by the way, though I agree with Edmund Hillary’s statement, I think it’s clear that though many of us really want something and really want to work hard for it, oftentimes, some part of us opposes this and gets in the way – no disrespect to the man’s great achievement and what worked for him:).

There is a Transactional Analysis theory that I think speaks to this matter, and it is called “Strokes”:

A stroke is a unit of recognition. 

An example of a stroke might be something as simple as a nod of the head from a neighbour as you drive past him on your way to work. In a very small way, they have recognised you, acknowledged your presence, and have nodded their head as a gesture of that recognition. It may not change your day or move you emotionally but it’s a ritual that is performed to let each other know that we are seen and that we matter; at least you matter enough for them to make the effort of a nod. If you nod back, we have a transaction but that’s another bit of TA theory we’re not going to cover here.

We can obviously offer and receive much more significant strokes e.g. a poem written just for you, an expensive gift, a card which details why you are so loved by another, an actual physical stroke, someone touching your arm or putting their hand on your shoulder as you share your sadness with them, it could also be a compliment or a kind word of praise offered sincerely.

We all hunger for strokes, it’s a very human thing; when we are little we want physical strokes, actual skin-to-skin touch and as we develop, we begin to be OK with psychological strokes as an alternative to physical contact. 

Motivational material Matt Taylor Coaching

There are four types of strokes:

  1. Positive conditional stroke e.g. “well done, that was good”. These are classed as conditional because they are based on behaviour/performance.
  2. Negative conditional stroke e.g. “Not good, that was poor”. These are classed as conditional because they are based on behaviour/performance
  3. Positive unconditional stroke e.g. “You are wonderful”. These are classed as unconditional because they are given regardless of performance/behaviour, so in many ways, they are targeted towards your identity or a person’s sense of self.
  4. Negative unconditional stroke e.g. “You are useless”. These are classed as unconditional because they are given regardless of performance/behaviour, so in many ways, they are targeted towards your identity or a person’s sense of self.

In my opinion, positive unconditional strokes reinforce a positive sense of self and self-worth. Negative unconditional strokes damage a positive sense of self and reinforce low self-worth.

But I’m going off-topic, I want to talk about what’s going on with these motivational speeches.

My theory for why motivational talks are so popular is because there are often competing parts within; there is a part of us that knows we have enormous potential for change and growth, however, there is a competing part that tells us stuff like…

“You’ve tried before, what’s the point”

“Success is not for you, it’s for others”

“You’ll never amount to much”

“You’re just not (good) enough!”

or other similar unhelpful, generic and negative detritus. (Just a quick side note: Negative conditional strokes can be an important part of learning and can be used to reveal areas of performance/behaviour which can be improved and optimised. The way they are delivered often whether the stroke lands in a way that it can be heard and used for improvement.)

I think these unwanted and unhelpful internal “voices” are often a mix of negative unconditional strokes and negative conditional strokes. 

When we listen to the motivational material, for a brief moment we hear someone saying “You can do this”.

The speaker shares stories of insurmountable difficulties and how tough their situation was and how, despite not being highly educated or a genius at anything, they figured their way to a better place.

Motivational material Matt Taylor Coaching

As their narrative unfolds, we imagine what it must have been like for them and how it is for us now. We get a sense of what it must be like to go from difficulty to success and what that would feel like. We identify with their struggle and it resonates with us. Then they share what they said to themselves and it’s often something that sounds like a really positive stroke.

And finally, they declare a very clear affirmation of, “You too can overcome”, “You too can do remarkable things”, “You too can achieve your dreams”

These words, I believe, are positive strokes that resonate with that all-too-quiet voice in our own minds, that part of us that has always known that we have so much potential. The resonance stimulates a felt sense of being hopeful and confident in ourselves.

As we listen, we might make a decision to do more, to be more disciplined, to be more focused etc.

If those decisions are backed up with new habits and consistent behaviours, there is a hope of reaping the benefit of that motivational material. So often, however, new habits aren’t created, the reality of life and our patterns of being kick in, we face challenges common to all people and that positive voice becomes quiet again. The void is then filled with that other voice of negativity. So, we turn to another motivational speech to gee us up again… and on it goes.

This is where coaching, counselling and therapy can make a huge difference. Through this kind of help, we can gain an awareness of our inner world and what might be energising that negative voice. We can also learn to become more positive and learn “I’m OK, just as I am”. This can create an improved default baseline of positivity within, a better platform to build our sense of self upon.

As we grow, we continually develop an awareness of our inner processing and we learn that it’s not just receiving positive strokes from others that can make a difference but that offering them to and receiving them from ourselves in meaningful ways can also be transformational.

So you see, to some extent, I actually think motivational videos and speeches can be of real value IF they are kept in context. However, if you are stuck in the loop of endlessly listening to lots of them and not actually making any changes, you may want to quit gorging on the candy floss and find someone who understands how to really feed your mind and spirit – I personally think that coaches, counsellors, and therapists trained in Transactional Analysis are a good place to start.


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