Fueled By or Ruled By?

Do you know the difference between something that inspires you and something that controls you? Can you tell the difference between motivation and compulsion? It's not always easy to tell the difference.

It’s good to have a passion that drives you to achieve a desired goal. You may be motivated by economic success, artistic or athletic achievement, or any other avenue of personal development which leads to greater life satisfaction. The desire to accomplish a worthwhile outcome can be an energizing, sustaining and satisfying experience. It is rich fuel for the journey.

But sometimes what masquerades as passion is actually a compulsive drive toward a goal that ignores healthy boundaries and can potentially be detrimental to a life well lived. A person can become so consumed by an obsession to achieve a certain outcome that all sense of balance is lost. When nothing matters to you but achievement, how you get there often seems to be less important -- the goal is the thing, the end justifies the means. It is not always easy to tell when you are being “fueled by” or “ruled by” a desire.

There are certainly times in which it is necessary to put almost everything else aside in order to achieve a certain goal. “Digging in” with a spirit of dogged determination to accomplish an important task with little regard for anything else can be heroic. But the compulsive drive to achieve some goal with little regard for the negative consequences it can bring to yourself or others, especially if that goal ultimately has relatively little lasting meaning, is likely to be more "draining" than "sustaining".

When you examine the various desires you have, it’s helpful to ask: “Am I fueled by them, or am I ruled by them?” Sometimes the answer is hard to face or difficult to discern. What rules us often blinds us, while what fuels us more often reveals itself with refreshing clarity and a sense of deep satisfaction. By this measure, if you don’t know the answer, you probably do know the answer.


Bill Herring, LCSW, CSAT is a psychotherapist in Atlanta.  He treats offers treatment for depression, life stresses, relationship problems and poorly managed sexual behavior.