What Drives You?

by Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W., Psychology Today

Maybe it’s time to step back and change what is really running your life.


  • Some drivers in our lives are destructive or keep us from reaching our potential.
  • We can think of common drivers likes steps on a ladder from most negative to most positive.
  • By acknowledging your drivers, you have the opportunity to focus on and change them.

When you step back and look at the landscape of your life, what’s drives you? What shapes what you do, not in terms of priorities—the things you focus on—but the engine that pushes your life along?

Seeing our lives as being driven is not new to psychology. Freud mapped out his 5 stages of development: oral, anal, phallic, genital, that not only propel a child’s development but can shape the adult’s.1 And Maslow became famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, which moves up from the biological to self-actualizing.2 As these authors point out, there are good and bad drivers, but each sets the pace, the tone of your life. You can choose what drives you, but the challenge is that you don’t choose. Instead, you accept what you get, or get used to, and call it life. You can change that, but first, you need to know where you stand.

Here are some of the most common drivers, ranked from those with the most significant positive impact (passions) to those providing the most negative impact (addictions). The line separates what we might consider adverse mental health from the positive.

Passions / Purpose




Emotionally Driven / Shoulds / Self-Criticism

Anxiety / Depression


Here’s how they break down:


Here we think of alcoholism, drugs, sex, workaholism. What makes them addictive is that they kidnap your brain. Rational thinking goes offline, your midbrain pleasure center takes over and you just do what you do because you do it. You’re the passenger, and your addiction is running your life.

Anxiety / Depression

Unfortunately, this is the driver for too many of us. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety is the number one mental health problem in the U.S. affecting 18 percent of the population.3 It can take many forms—panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety, phobias. But regardless of the form, the impact is the same—your life is derailed. You worry, you avoid, you feel compelled to do things that you know are irrational, occupying too much of your time and mind.

Depression is the cousin of anxiety. Often, they go hand-in-hand. Worry leads to feeling overwhelmed, which can lead to feeling stuck or trapped, leading to feeling hopeless. When one or both of these take over, you are either always thinking about the what-ifs of the future or regretful and trapped by the past. The present dissolves into a blur.

Emotionally Driven / Shoulds / Self-criticism

While these are not formally diagnosable conditions, each has a negative impact on your life. Folks who are emotionally driven tend to run their lives based on how they feel. If they “feel” like cleaning up the house, they do; if they don’t, they don’t. While there’s an apparent spontaneity in their lives, they also struggle with the discipline needed to get things done that are difficult or necessary. They miss deadlines, problems get swept under the rug, they can seem to be unreliable to others.

Those driven by too many shoulds can go too far in the other direction. Rules run their lives. They can seem rigid with their black and white thinking and may feel guilty for breaking the rules. Because the rules are usually inherited from others, running your life this way often keeps you out of touch with your deeper needs and wants.

Finally, self-criticism is the bully who beats you up when you break the rules. Rather than enjoying your life, you spend much of your time trying to stay out of trouble with yourself.


Routines are useful. Without them, our anxiety goes up and we are essentially forced to invent each day from scratch. But if your days become too routinized, we’re running on autopilot; there’s too little spontaneity, few opportunities for joy. Life is safe but bland.


Setting goals and working towards them are good antidotes to routine’s downsides. You are proactive rather than reactive, creative rather than staid. But you can undermine your goals if you are emotionally driven. When the going gets tough and the goals are not your own, you lose enthusiasm, or your expectations are unrealistic. When that happens, it’s easy for anxiety, self-criticism, and depression to take over.


Passion and purpose are at the top of our ladder because they arise from that core of who we are and want to be and carry none of the baggage of the others. When driven by passion and purpose, we are honest with ourselves and others. There is a natural integrity as our inner and outer lives reflect each other. We have the discipline to do what we want and need to do, yet can change our minds and be spontaneous without guilt or self-criticism.

So, when you step back and look at your life, what are your drivers? What keeps you from moving up that ladder? What do you need to do to reach greater fulfillment? How can you start today?


Freud, S. (1905). 3 Essays on the theory of sexuality. Standard edition 7: 123-246.

Maslow, A.J. (1954). Motivation & Personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Facts & statistics. Anxiety & Depression Association of American. www. adaa.org

by Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W., Psychology Today


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