Everyone – almost everyone – is playing the waiting game. Everyone – almost everyone – has something or other that they’re waiting for and their thoughts about what they are waiting for (and whether or not it is likely to happen) is determining the reality of their mental state. All of our mental states (the normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill ones at least) are due therefore to this key relationship between us and ‘what we’re waiting for’.
This sounds a bit simplistic but we can easily demonstrate how it would work. I might for example be waiting for something ‘good’ to happen, and be at the same time confident that it will happen, and so my mental state will be one of elation. I will be full of pleasurable expectation – almost as if the desired outcome had already come to pass. On the other hand if I am not confident that the good thing is going to happen, but still desirous of it happening, then I will be anxious – I will be full of misgivings and trepidation. In this case my mental state is not a pleasurable one but quite the opposite in that it will be causing me pain. It is as if the good thing had already ‘not happened,’ so to speak, which neatly converts the pleasurable anticipation into painful anticipation. When a desired outcome doesn’t materialize then the more desired it was the more suffering I undergo, obviously. When I am waiting for a bad thing to happen then this gives rise to the mental state of negative (or ‘dysphoric’) anticipation – anticipation that is coloured by doubt – and this is a state which we tend to know as anxiety, or dread.
At this point however we can see that there could equally well be two ways of ‘getting anxious’. On the one hand we could be experiencing dysphoric anticipation because we suspect that the positive outcome which we are waiting for is not going to come about (since we have no confidence in our ability to secure the desired outcome), but on the other hand we could be experiencing dysphoric anticipation because we believe that a negative (or feared) outcome is going to come to pass because we do not feel confident in our ability to prevent or avoid this eventuality. I’m anxious either way – in the first case I’m anxious because I think that I’m powerless to avoid losing the desired thing and in the second case I’m anxious because I’m equally powerless to avoid gaining the bad thing. But whether I’m anxious because I don’t trust my ability to secure the good outcome, or because I have no faith in my ward off the bad outcome it still comes down to the same thing in the end. The experience of anxiety (or ‘worry’) is exactly the same in both cases…
So far we have considered the mental states associated with ‘waiting for a desired outcome to come about’. The two mental states we have been discussing are basically ‘hopeful’ and ‘anxious’ states, where the former is pleasurable to exactly the same extent that the latter is painful. The two states – it could be said – are ‘mirror images’ of each other – in one we optimistically hope for the good thing to happen and in the other we pessimistically worry that it won’t! The one brings about a euphoric state of mind, the other a dysphoric one. Funnily enough, we see ‘optimism’ as being a very good way to be, whilst at the same time regarding pessimism as being a thoroughly bad kind of a thing. And yet they’re both the same thing! The cause of our euphoria is our relationship to imaginary events in the future just as the cause of our dysphoria is (there are after all no ‘non-imaginary’ events in the future!), but the ‘difference’ is that whilst we prize the former state of affairs we don’t at all prize the latter, which doesn’t really make the slightest bit of sense when we put it like this.
Anxiety isn’t the same as fear. If I am ‘waiting for the bad thing to happen’ but at the same time I’m confident I can avoid the bad thing happening by controlling the situation effectively then of course I’m not ‘waiting for the bad thing to happen’. Either I’m not going to be there when it happens, or I’m going to make sure that it doesn’t happen! There is in this case no anxiety, no worry about the thing happening. But if I am not confident that I can control the situation effectively (even though I think that I ought to be able to) then what we’re talking about is the mental state of anxiety. We could wonder what sort of mental state it is that arises when I am relating to an unwanted outcome in the future that I know (or think) I can avoid, and the answer is plainly that there is no such mental state because just as long as I am sure of my own ‘ability to control’ I can afford to forget about the negative outcome in question, and so this is just what I do. It doesn’t figure in my calculations at all.
We can still talk about fear being a motivator, however, whether or whether not I am confident that I can avoid what I am afraid of: if I have no reason to doubt my ability to control the situation then the fear stays as an unconscious motivator, and if I do have doubts on this score then it rises to the surface as anxiety. It becomes conscious. Control is fear-driven but we don’t directly experience the fear because of my confidence in my ability to control successfully. This is what is known to psychologists as ‘perceived self-efficacy’. According to Albert Bandura,
Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.
A simpler definition is provided by alleydog.com –
Self-efficacy is ‘a person’s belief in his or her ability to complete a future task or solve a future problem’.
There’s something rather peculiar about these definitions of what is called ‘self-efficacy’, although we are culturally indisposed to seeing it. Being confident that we can ‘complete a future task’ or ‘solve a future problem’ is itself highly problematical from a philosophical point of view. I possess a sense of self-efficacy because of the belief I have in my ability to control future events, but there is absolutely no way that I can know this! There is absolutely no way I can know that I can complete future tasks or solve future problems, simply because we are talking about the future and the future – by definition – hasn’t happened yet. My ‘sense of self-efficacy’ leads me to suppose that the future is ‘closed’, and yet there is no way that this can ever be the case. The future is never closed. Any thoughts that I have about the future are of course always going to be conjecture on my part – I might have completed some task a million times in the past but this is no guarantee that I am going to be able to do so in the future! I can make a good geuss that I will be able to complete the task and it is OK to do this (in fact it’s pretty much necessary that I make the guess) but there is no way that I can know that I can do it. We could make a convincing argument, therefore, that this thing called ‘perceived self-efficacy’ is based upon a delusory belief!
This might sound like a mere philosophical quibble and we tend to be distinctly dismissive of philosophical quibbles in our very practical and distinctly non-philosophical culture. OK, we can’t know absolutely that we can complete the task but what the hell difference does this make in the real world? But in practice – perhaps surprisingly – it makes an awful lot of difference. The ‘difference’ is there all the time and if we don’t think that there is a difference then this is simply because we haven’t discovered it yet! Our so-called confidence is a balloon that has yet to be punctured. It regularly happens that after an unexpected accident or trauma we become anxious about this sort of thing happening again, or anxious about some other unforeseen and unmanned catastrophe. This is seen as distorted thinking – just because we were unfortunate enough for this to happen the once doesn’t make it more likely to happen again (or for some other unknown catastrophe to occur). But this is missing the point – I have discovered that very bad things can happen in the world and this is all that is needed to bring anxiety into the picture.
The reason this discovery is enough to bring anxiety into the picture where previously there was none (and the reason why I can’t be so easily reassured that it will never happen again) is because beforehand I had been naively basing my confidence on a false sense of certainty – a sense of certainty that I now know to be unfounded. Being confident on the basis of having a false sense of certainty about things isn’t really ‘confidence’ at all – it is just the secure feeling that we get from believing in a comforting delusion! This type of so-called confidence is based on disguised weakness rather than strength because it is based upon ‘not being aware of the difficulty’. Genuine confidence would be where I am aware of the intrinsic uncertainty of the world (i.e. the irreducible uncertainty with regard to ‘whatever might unfold next’, and yet I carry on happily with my life anyway, even though I have this awareness. So what we are saying here is that the normal, everyday type of confidence that we have isn’t based on us having an actual awareness of the true nature of reality, but rather it is based on nothing more than what we might call ‘avoidant thinking’!
The normal type of confidence that we have that things will ‘work out for us’ is therefore only disguised weakness – it is ‘strength that comes about as a result of us not being aware of the intrinsic uncertainty of life’. It is – we could say – confidence that it based on a false assumption of a type of certainty, a type of certainty that just doesn’t exist. Or we could say that it is just ‘taking things for granted’ – which is a simpler way of putting it. This is a curious thing because it means that what we see as a ‘healthy’ component of the individual’s psychology is actually no more than a socially acceptable form of denial. This thing that we call ‘perceived self-efficacy’ is simply a form of confidence in ourselves that is based on uncertainty denial – a form of confidence that is founded precariously upon the denial of the intrinsic uncertainty inherent in all situations.
Perceived self-efficacy may also be said to be the type of confidence that can exist when we live in a mind-created virtual reality world, which is an artificial world in which there is no intrinsic uncertainty! There can’t be any intrinsic uncertainty in mental construct because there is no way to code for it, no way to specify it – it can’t be engineered and so in such an artificial situation it genuinely is the case that we can rely on absolutely predictable outcomes, outcomes that can be guaranteed just as long as we apply the correct protocols. This mind-made VR world is fine as a VR world but the obvious problem is that it isn’t reality and so the type of confidence that we develop when we adapt to the VR isn’t actually real either! It’s virtual confidence in a virtual world. So because the much-valued sense of self-efficacy really only belongs to our idea of the world (and falls to pieces upon exposure to actual reality) it clearly isn’t as great as it is cracked up to be. It is the type of confidence that comes about as a result of ‘successful denial’, the type of confidence that comes about as a result of our belief in an imaginary form of certainty, and so although it feels like a genuine resource that we can call upon in times of difficulty, it isn’t, as we will one day inevitably discover…
This isn’t to say that we can’t develop a genuine type of confidence, a type of confidence that doesn’t only have any applicability or validity within the mind-created virtual reality of our thoughts. We can be confident and strong in a way that acknowledges intrinsic uncertainty (i.e. in a way that isn’t based on denial) but this is really a very different kind of thing. In this case my confidence is based on the courage that I have to face with equanimity any outcome that comes along, not just the one I am aiming for! This type of confidence is ‘independent of failure and success’ in other words and so it has nothing to do with any belief that I might have with regard to my ability to control outcomes in the future. With this sort of confidence it doesn’t matter even if I do have a run of bad luck in which ‘nothing goes my way’; it doesn’t matter because my confidence isn’t based on how good I think I am at controlling stuff – rather than being based on my ability to obtain the outcomes I want obtain it is based on my openness, my open-minded willingness to engage with whatever comes along.
The sense of self-efficacy is often spoken of in terms of ‘having a belief in oneself’. A belief in oneself is a good thing, or so we are led to suppose by the mouthpieces of popular psychology. But if I have ‘a belief in myself’ what this really means is that I have a belief in myself as a successful controller, as a person who is able to control future outcomes so that that the unwanted outcomes can be successfully avoided. What this means is that my belief in myself is derived from my belief in my ability to successfully avoid the outcomes that I am afraid of, and so my confidence is all about the effective strategies and skills that I have, and my ability to unfailingly put these strategies and skills into operation, and not about me at all! This is so obvious, and yet we seem to be so thick-headed that we just can’t see it – how can it possibly be a good thing for me to feel good about myself, confident in myself, as a result of my ability to control, my ability to arrange future scenarios that suit me? This is very obviously just a form of what we have been calling ‘disguised weakness’ – it would be the same as if I feel confident because I have a very big friend who around with me everywhere I go, or because I have a gun in my pocket, or because I am wearing a suit of armour that no weapon can penetrate. This is admittedly the type of confidence that we develop in life (the type of confidence that is based on the strength of our ‘personality armour’) but this kind of a thing, when it comes down to it, is a most dreadful disadvantage rather being the wonderful advantage that it is enthusiastically promoted as being.
Our thinking is back-to-front on this matter: the belief that I have of myself as a being an effective controller of future outcomes is a complete delusion and genuine confidence clearly can’t be based on a delusion. On the contrary, it comes about as a result of my unreserved willingness to take the risk of not being in control. Or as we could also say, it arises out of the insight that I am perfectly OK in myself whether I am able to control outcomes or not. This is what Pema Chodren calls unconditional confidence, which confidence that comes from being able to work with uncertainty rather than from the ability to effectively deny it. We can refer to the two types of confidence that we are talking about here as extrinsic versus intrinsic confidence where the former is based – obviously – on some factor or other that is external to us, and the latter is based on something that is internal, something genuinely does belong to us. Although extrinsic confidence may superficially look like the real thing it isn’t because if the external factor were to be taken away from us we would discover that all of our so-called confidence evaporates instantaneously, leaving behind nothing but pure undiluted terror. Extrinsic confidence is ‘fear in disguise’, therefore!
We can also talk in terms of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. The former is the easiest to explain: extrinsic motivation is ‘the motivation that I have to enjoy the good feeling that I get when I successfully obtain the desired outcome’. When I am able to control outcomes successfully I feel good because this allows me to believe in myself as a ‘successful or competent controller’ and the reason this feels good is because it is a defence against fear. This is what we generally call ‘having a belief in oneself’, therefore! For this reason we can say that extrinsic motivation is all about running away from fear, which corresponds to our earlier statement that ‘extrinsic confidence is disguised fear’. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the covert agenda to ward off fear (by making the self feel more secure because of it’s imagined ability to successfully control outcomes) but rather it is – we could say – something akin to ‘healthy curiosity’ or ‘the desire to be surprised’. Intrinsic motivation might also be said to be the same thing as the willingness to follow one’s hunch, or act on some kind of intuitive feeling that one can’t rationally understand.
Pretty obviously, extrinsic motivation is the usual type of motivation that we come across in day-to-day life. This everyday type of motivation has a split-level character: on one level (the conscious level) I am motivated by my desire to obtain whatever the goal is, but on another level (the unconscious level) I am motivated by my need to obtain the sense of security that comes from being able to competently obtain desired outcomes… We could therefore say that extrinsic motivation is ‘controlling for the sake of controlling’ (or ‘being in control for the sake of being in control’, whilst at the same time coming with a cover story (which is eminently believable to both ourselves and others) that attaining the overt or stated goal is actually the real reason for us doing whatever it is that we are doing, and that there isn’t another agenda behind this. Extrinsic motivation is our way of fooling ourselves, in other words!
We could also define EM by saying that extrinsic motivation is the type of motivation associated with ‘playing the waiting game’. Most of our time – as self-observation will show – is spend in a state of either euphoric or dysphoric anticipation and whilst the former (called ‘looking forward to stuff’) is prized and widely regarded as a good thing, the converse is true for the latter. This is however a rather curious thing because we really can’t have the one without the other! And what is more, it can fairly easily be seen that the two states are not that different at all really since the mechanics of ‘how they work’ are exactly the same in both cases, as we have already pointed out. So euphoric and dysphoric anticipation – although we prize one and revile the other – are not just ‘close relatives’ but the very same thing, seen in different phases of their operation.
A good analogy of what we’re talking about here would be the two phases of piston-movement in a two-stroke steam engine – the ‘expansion’ phase and the ‘return’ phase. When the piston fills with steam and moves forcefully out this seems like a very different thing from when pressure drops in the next phase due to condensation of the steam and the piston just as forcefully returns back to its starting off position. One seems ‘heroic’ and positive whilst the other might appear ‘cowardly’ and negative, but very obviously both phases are needed for the operation of the engine! In the same way we could say that our motivation for doing a lot of things is ‘the pleasurable anticipation of how good we’ll feel when we obtain the prize’. I might for example work very hard at my job in hope of getting a promotion. This would be equivalent to the expansion phase of the two-stroke engine. On the other hand a lot of our motivation is based on negative anticipation of ‘how bad we’ll feel when the undesired outcome comes to pass’, which is fear. If I fear being sacked for being a lazy and useless worker, then I will work harder as a result and so the same result is achieved. This is equivalent to the return phase (or contraction phase). So with desire I will run fast to obtain the reward, but with negative desire (or fear) I will run equally fast to avoid the punishment, and when it comes down to it both motivations work equally well! The two apparently different motivation complement each other perfectly. It’s all the same engine. Fear and desire are simply the two sides of the same coin, the two phases of the same cycle, therefore…
Fear and craving are the two extreme forms of the ‘waiting game’ – we’re waiting both ways – on the one hand we’re waiting for what we absolutely DON’T want to happen and on the other hand we’re waiting for what we absolutely DO want to happen. Both are states of anticipation, only one is negative whilst the other is positive.
These two states seem worlds apart to us. One is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’, after all! One is prized, the other universally deprecated. One is pleasurable, the other full of great suffering. But if we trouble ourselves to take a good look at what is going on here we can see that both forms of the waiting game involve us totally disregarding the reality of the present moment and fixating all our attention ‘somewhere else’.
We’re obligingly fixating our attention where the thinking mind is pointing and the thinking mind is always pointing away from the present moment! It is pointing very dramatically to the mechanically unfolding Mind-Created Drama. It is pointing very dramatically to ‘what is going to happen next’ and it is precisely because we are looking so obediently to where the thinking mind is pointing that we are playing the Waiting Game…!
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.