Understanding What Motivates People

by Ephraim Portnoy

The Rebbe writes in Sichos Haran (Rebbe Nachman’s Wisdom) #10:

The wicked are full of regret, though they do not understand at all what regret really is. For this itself is the reason they become stronger in the matter of their wickedness, this itself (their bad actions) is their remorse. As remorse enters their minds, they consequently become fiercer in their wickedness. It’s like two people fighting against each other. When one sees that the other is overpowering him, he then tries harder to fight back. The same thing is when the evil part of a person sees that something good is beginning to arise within him, it then tries harder to overpower it.

This is an important rule in serving Hashem, even in regard to regular people, everyone in his own way. Whenever someone wants to enter into the service of Hashem, the Baal Davar tries to overpower him, as has already been explained from this elsewhere (see Likutey Moharan, Part I, Lesson 72, and in Part B, Lesson 48).

Bad behavior or something else entirely?

We tend to see people’s behavior and imagine that their actions reflect what’s really going on inside them. Our gut instinct is that people do what they want to do, and don’t do what they don’t really want to. It would seem to follow that their actions and behavior represent their inner world. Actions speak and people mean what they say.

We look at ourselves the same way. We think that the way we ourselves behave must be a reflection of who we really are inside. We think, if this is how I’m acting then it must mean that deep inside that’s really what I’m all about.

Because of this, we assume that when we observe someone falling and their behavior takes a wrong turn, this is a result of that person’s character getting worse. The same is true of myself.  If I see my own behavior deteriorating, I must be getting worse than I once was.

However, the Rebbe teaches that people are much more complex than this. People are made up of a dynamic of various parts, some of them positive and some of them negative. What motivates someone to do something isn’t so forthright and obvious, even to a person themself.

What’s really motivating someone to act in a certain way might actually be the exact opposite of what it seems at the surface. Not only is is not because they have become a worse person, but according to the Rebbe, it’s the exact opposite. In reality, regret and remorse are driving them.

What’s really going on inside of us?

Imagine that within each one of us is not just one person, but two or more personalities trapped in an ongoing struggle, with our true self attempting to arbitrate. When one of the personalities feels threatened, it starts to fight back more aggressively. The fighting back isn’t a sign of getting stronger – it’s a sign of realization that it’s under threat.

In other words, what can motivate one part of us is actually a feeling of being threatened by another part of us, and a person himself might not be aware of what’s his real subconscious motivation. As in the example that the Rebbe is describing, a person doesn’t necessarily identify that feeling of discomfort which he’s trying to quell as “regret”, but that’s what it is. When we realize that about others and ourselves, we can tap into it.

When we see the way someone is acting, especially if it seems that they are acting worse than before, instead of getting worried and taking it as a sign that his bad character is getting worse, we should try to tap into their real feelings. What are they feeling which makes them feel threatened? It might even be a positive development. It might be that a good part of them is starting to feel bad about their situation and wants to be better. The unwelcome parts of them feel threatened, so they’re putting up a fight.

And when we see ourselves seeming to get worse, when we realize that it might actually be a sign that things are getting better, we can approach the situation with a different attitude. Even if until now we didn’t identify that itch as remorse, now that the Rebbe has helped us identify it, we can take advantage of it and use it to push ourselves to keep on getting better. If the unwanted parts of us are feeling threatened and are starting to lash out, it means that the positive parts of us are doing better than before.

How do we apply this?

We can apply this idea to a great many aspects of life. For example, when it seems as if a child is suddenly acting out, and we hold onto our old assumptions that something must have gone south with them, we will then make the mistake of dealing with the superficial, surface level outburst. Or, we can realize that maybe there’s something deeper going on inside. Maybe he’s feeling threatened by something which he doesn’t have the vocabulary to express and identify. Maybe he or she is even actually trying to be better, and is feeling bad about where they are holding onto. Perhaps it’s regret, even on a subconscious level, which is causing the old parts of them to feel threatened and to act out.

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