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​Our Blog

An ongoing series of informational entries


Unlocking and Enacting Our Ambitions

Written by Stephanie Weiss, LPC


          My mind wants me to go to the gym, but my body tells me to stay in bed. My mind is telling me to cook a healthy meal, but my body is craving take-out. My mind likes the idea of completing my work assignments on time, but my body is keen on procrastination. Does this mind-body disconnect sound like something you’ve experienced? Likely, for many, the answer is yes. There are an abundance of activities and behaviors that we wish we could readily engage in to better ourselves, yet we struggle to follow through on these pursuits.

          What’s missing?

          Motivation! Motivation is defined as “the impetus that gives purpose or direction to behavior and operates in humans at a conscious or unconscious level” (1). In short, motivation is what pushes us to do something. It’s the reason or the “why” that helps to explain how our mind’s desires and our body’s physicality can work in alignment to stimulate action.

          The history of psychology reveals numerous theories on motivation. Let’s review a couple:

  • Theory of Operant Conditioning – This theory focuses on the idea that behaviors are linked to consequences. A behavior is likely to be repeated when it is reinforced with a reward, and conversely, a behavior is less likely to be repeated when it is tied to a punishment. In terms of motivation, a person is more apt to engage in a behavior when past experiences of engaging in the behavior have produced positive, enticing results (2).
  • Self-Determination Theory – This theory looks at three basic human needs – autonomy, competence, and relatedness – and the extent to which a person feels he/she has met these needs. A person who fulfills these needs is considered “self-determined” and will be guided by a sense of intrinsic motivation, a desire to act based on personal values and ideas. A person who is unable to meet these needs will be guided by a sense of extrinsic motivation, a desire to act based on external rewards and societal reinforcement (3).

What do the research and theories on motivation actually tell us?

          First, that becoming motivated to engage in a new behavior is hard! These behaviors require brain power, literally. Our pre-frontal cortex must attend to and focus on the task at hand in order to accomplish it. Alternatively, those behaviors that seem to come easy or naturally to us, ones we may describe as habits, no longer require this level of mental effort. As described by researcher Dr. Elliot Berkman, brains can bring behaviors to the “point that they no longer take up precious space in consciousness”; rather, they become automatic or ingrained (4). This knowledge should serve as a source of comfort when you find yourself struggling to either get started or to sustain your efforts on a new behavior.

          Second, positive outcomes increase your chances of re-engaging in a behavior. As the Theory of Operant Conditioning emphasizes, rewards are reinforcing, and punishments are not. Taking it a step further, as described in the Self-Determination Theory, rewards, which shape the type of motivation and have implications over time, can be either external or internal. For example, when a child is given stickers (a reward) after eating vegetables at dinner, he/she is going to be more motivated to engage in vegetable-eating in the future. Alternatively, a child who is scolded (a punishment) for eating cookies before dinner is going to be less motivated to engage in cookie-eating before dinner in the future. In both of these examples, the child is provided with external outcome sources, specifically tangible objects (stickers) and negative feedback from parents (scolding). Let’s look at a child who independently completes his/her science homework every day because of a love for science. This child, like the one in the first example, is also going to be motivated to continue to engage in this behavior (completing the science homework) because the child’s love of science is a motivation. This child is still being rewarded, and thus reinforced, but in a different way. The child is utilizing an internal reward – a sense of pride and interest in his/her studies. Research reveals that long-term, individuals who are intrinsically motivated, rather than extrinsically motivated, are more likely to experience sustained motivation because of the personal level of connectedness and investment one has with the behavior (5).

          Third, your explanation for wanting to engage in the behavior is essential. Related to the idea of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, research reveals that people are more motivated to perform an action when the desire or intention is coming from within, in other words, when one chooses to engage in a behavior out of his/her own agency and volition, not because of pressure from others. Behaviors that are connected to one’s values and identity are more motivating than behaviors associated with media influence or societal expectations.

Let’s turn insight into action. “I’m feeling unmotivated. What can I do?”

1. Don’t get frustrated.
  • Enter with the understanding that this will be hard, and this will take time. Perfection right off the bat is unrealistic.

2.Check in on your priorities.

  • Ensure that you can properly concentrate on the new behavior in which you wish to engage. For example, if a specific work assignment is your priority for the day, it may also be difficult to focus on the new exercise routine that you hope to begin. Prioritize your tasks, and determine the best setting and time of day to begin the new behavior so that you can exert the mental and physical energy it requires.
3.Think through your reason for wanting to engage in this new behavior.
  • Do you feel forced to participate? Are you doing it because people around you are doing it? Did you see someone on social media do it? These experiences don’t necessarily mean that your level of motivation will be low, but it’s important to find a personal connection to the new behavior as well. In other words, I want to clean my house because I feel more at ease when the clutter is gone, not because I’m having guests over for dinner, and I’m afraid of what they might say.

4.Be specific, realistic, and consistent about your goals.

  • Motivation is hard to uphold when the task or goal is broad and seemingly unattainable. Instead of setting a goal of reading all the books in your house that you have not gotten to yet, aim for reading one book this month. If you accomplish this task, set a goal of reading two books next month. As you begin accomplishing behaviors, regardless of how small, your level of motivation to proceed will likely increase.

5.Identify and implement a reward system.

  • When you’re feeling incredibly unmotivated, choose rewards that provide immediate gratification. This will help you cross that boundary from inactivity to activity. For example, if I spend 30 minutes reading articles for my research paper, I will reward myself with 30 minutes of screen time right after. Once you’ve begun engaging in the behavior, then you may choose to gradually decrease the reward or perhaps assign a more internally motivating reward for better long-term results.


1) APA dictionary of psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved February 08, 2021, from

2)Cherry, K. (2020, June 4). What Is Operant Conditioning and How Does It Work? Verywell Mind.

3)Lumen Learning (n.d.). Motivation as self-determination | Educational Psychology. Retrieved from:

4)Berkman, E. T. (2018b). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 28–44.

5)Cherry, K. (2020, May 13). How the Overjustification Effect Reduces Motivation. Verywell Mind.

The Dealings of Feelings

Written by Stephanie Weiss, LPC


          What are those sometimes confusing, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes extraordinary things called emotions? If you’re not so sure of the answer, keep on reading. Identifying, understanding, and coping with emotions are not only relevant to one’s therapeutic journey but also play significant roles in one’s day-to-day life.

What are emotions?

          The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines a primary emotion as “any one of a limited set of emotions that typically are manifested and recognized universally across cultures.” Examples of primary or basic emotions include happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. The APA defines a secondary emotion as “an emotion that is not recognized or manifested universally across cultures or that requires social experience for its construction.” For example, if a car in front of you is moving slowly, your primary emotion may be anger. However, as a result of feeling angry, you may experience a secondary emotion of guilt. Lastly, Emotion differentiation refers to the ability to distinguish among a variety of emotions in various circumstances (1).

           Do these definitions make you feel overwhelmed? Puzzled? Confused? Or perhaps they make you feel satisfied, powerful, or intelligent. With time, you’ll be able to more accurately label what it is you’re feeling and better understand how nuances among words may actually impact your overall well-being.

Why is this information important?

          Research reveals that individuals with high emotion differentiation, in other words, those who are able to identify and perceive specific, distinct emotions are:

 •better able to regulate their emotional experiences. This is because an accurate emotional label can serve as a context clue or a guide for how to take appropriate action. Additionally, being able to differentiate among emotions can help someone gain distance between him/herself and the emotion, resulting in a more rational, stable course of action. This means the individual does not become overpowered by his/her emotional state (2).

less likely to cope in dysfunctional manners, such as with excessive drinking (3) or aggressive behaviors (4).

better able to cope with rejection (5).

better able to recognize the emotions of someone else. Not only is there an internal benefit of emotion differentiation but also an interpersonal, or social, one as well (6).

          As experts on this topic succinctly state, “Emotion differentiation is beneficial and transcends any single psychological problem, serving as a skill that facilitates psychological and social well-being" (2).

What can I do with this?

          The research tells us that emotion differentiation is a skill that can be improved. One way to work on your emotion differentiation abilities is to increase your emotion vocabulary and to subsequently practice using a variety of new, distinct words to label your emotional experiences. For example, look at the first image below. If you’re feeling a high level of happiness, see if items in the “strong” category under the title “happiness” match your experience.

          The Feeling Wheel image works similarly. Start in the center of the circle to find the feeling that aligns with your current experience and go outward to get more specific. The wheel can also be useful in showing opposing pairs of emotions. If you’re experiencing a negative emotion, you may find it beneficial to identify a countering, positive word to embrace. For example, sad is opposite of joyful just as depressed is opposite of playful. Browse these and other emotion vocabulary images to begin expanding your personal feelings dictionary.

Image 1

Image 2

For parents, caregivers, and teachers:

          Exposing children to emotion-related work at a young age is essential. It is recommended that adults appropriately and accurately express emotions in the presence of children. Instead of slamming the door when coming home from a stressful day at work, a parent can enter the house and say, “Wow, what I day! I feel frustrated with my co-worker.” Adults can also vocalize appropriate ways to regulate and cope with these emotions: “I’m going to take a warm bath to calm down for a bit.” Furthermore, it is recommended that adults utilize books about emotions, specifically ones that include visual images of facial expressions, when engaging with children (7). For further learning, check out these kid-friendly, interactive videos: and 


1) Barrett, L. F., Gross, J., Christensen, T. C., & Benvenuto, M. (2001). Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation. Cognition & Emotion, 15(6), 713–724.

2) Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L. F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking Emotion Differentiation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10–16.

3) Kashdan, T. B., Ferssizidis, P., Collins, R. L., & Muraven, M. (2010). Emotion Differentiation as Resilience Against Excessive Alcohol Use. Psychological Science, 21(9), 1341–1347.

4) Pond, R. S., Kashdan, T. B., DeWall, C. N., Savostyanova, A., Lambert, N. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). Emotion differentiation moderates aggressive tendencies in angry people: A daily diary analysis. Emotion, 12(2), 326–337.

5) Kashdan, T. B., DeWall, C. N., Masten, C. L., Pond, R. S., Powell, C., Combs, D., Schurtz, D. R., & Farmer, A. S. (2014). Who Is Most Vulnerable to Social Rejection? The Toxic Combination of Low Self-Esteem and Lack of Negative Emotion Differentiation on Neural Responses to Rejection. PLoS ONE, 9(3), e90651.

6) Israelashvili, J., Oosterwijk, S., Sauter, D., & Fischer, A. (2019). Knowing me, knowing you: emotion differentiation in oneself is associated with recognition of others’ emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 33(7), 1461–1471.

7) Joseph, G. E. & Strain, P.S. (n.d.) “Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children.” The Center on the Social

and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from:


There’s Snow Easy Answer: A COVID-19 Winter

By: Stephanie Weiss, LPC


        What does the winter season mean to you? Does it evoke images of a snowy day? Holiday lights? Family gatherings? Does it bring up difficult memories of lost loved ones? Family conflict? Resolutions for growth in the new year? If any of these descriptions are registering for you, seek comfort in their commonality. Moreover, are you asking yourself how it’s possible to experience a “traditional” winter season during this novel, unpredictable, overwhelming age of the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, yet again, you are not alone.

        What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? Also known as “winter blues” or “seasonal depression,” SAD’s clinical terminology is actually major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern. Individuals diagnosed with bipolar I and bipolar II disorder may also receive a “with seasonal pattern” specifier diagnosis. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), necessary criteria to meet this formal diagnosis include experiencing a significant relationship between the onset of the depressive symptoms and the specific time of year for at least two consecutive years. In other words, an individual with this diagnosis undergoes a downward shift in mood during a specific season, most frequently winter, and an upward shift in mood following the ending of that specific season. The temporal aspect of this diagnosis is often related to the impact of less sunlight during the winter months on one’s biochemistry. In addition to the common symptoms of major depressive episodes, SAD’s primary symptoms may include oversleeping, overeating, and weight gain. Common treatments include light therapy, psychotherapy, and antidepressants.

        Whether you struggle with SAD or are simply worried about changes in your mood over the winter months because of COVID-19, here’s what you can do on an individual level: embrace self-care and adopt self-compassion. Self-care is the practice of tending to one’s needs and wants to activate and/or maintain a healthy state of being. Self-care activities may include going on a walk, calling a friend, taking a hot shower, indulging in a sweet treat, taking a nap, journaling, or reading a book. Self-compassion is the practice of acknowledging and accepting one’s struggles with a sense of kindness, warmth, and a lack of judgment. Self-compassion is providing to yourself the same words of affirmation or comfort that you’d give to a friend.

        For example, during a DC COVID-19 winter, you may experience consistent, negative thoughts, such as I’m stuck inside all day and can’t do anything fun. You may see images on social media of friends in warmer climates spending time with peers outside and encounter feelings of jealousy, disappointment, or frustration. Self-care may look like: bundling up and taking a walk outside or turning on your fireplace and roasting some marshmallows. Self-compassion may look like: mindfully identifying the negative thoughts without added self-criticisms, exaggerations, or idealizations (My situation is difficult.); reminding yourself that you’re not alone (Other people are experiencing this too.); and offering yourself kindness (There is no roadmap to this; it’s okay to feel this way.).

        Personal recommendation for further self-compassion learning: 

Here are other ideas for what you CAN do this winter:

-Virtual events: parties, dinners, religious services
 Send an E-card, create a festive Zoom background, dress up in your favorite winter-wear.
-Outdoor gatherings
Schedule these during the warmest time of day.
-Gift exchanges
Drop gifts off at someone’s door, send a handwritten card, shop online.
-Virtual vacations

Research and select a desired location in which to “travel,” cook a meal reminiscent of the location, dress up in the appropriate attire, decorate the home to match the desired location.

-New Year’s reflections

Instead of resolutions, create reflections of the past year, and consider activities you can look forward to.
-Create a recipe book of favorite winter dishes
Send to a loved one or spend the day baking.
-For specific events and activities in DC, see:


1. Sherri Melrose (2015). "Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches," Depression Research and Treatment, vol. 2015, Article ID 178564, 6 pages.

2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

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