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Attitude And How We Define It

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    Attitude And How We Define It

    It's May. A new month and some fresh food for thought. In my day job I frequently give talks and advice to people in high roles. Inevitably the conversation will come down to attitude. The pandemic made it plainly obvious that it doesn't matter where we are geographically or how we are positioned materially, it places us under the same risk and makes it hard for us to cope emotionally and psychologically. Each of us, without exception, is fighting some hidden battle. Each of us faces things we don't control. These form the "what" of our situation. How we react to them however is entirely on us. That is our "how" - and that is where attitude comes in.

    Now, attitude is misunderstood. Even more so than motivation. It is something that is within our capacity to control completely but it doesn't stand on its own. It is formed, instead, by the consistency of our thoughts, emotions and actions. How we think, how we feel and how we behave, when it is true to our self is then an integral part of who we are. It can also be changed and in changing it affects everything else. To illustrate this I will give an example from my personal experience. I have a friend who occasionally would run with me each day. He'd do it for two-three weeks, get to a nice level of fitness then stop. Then a few months later he'd do it again. And then again. Each time he'd start it would be the same. He'd be gasping halfway through our run. I'd have to pep-talk him to continue. We would need a break halfway and then we would run back at a slower pace than usual. As he would improve he would get faster and fitter. Until he'd stop.

    Eventually we had that talk. "Why do you run?" I asked.

    "To lose weight." he said.

    It made total sense to me then. Running is never easy. There is always some discomfort involved. There is always fatigue afterwards. Some pain. For him all this was only worth putting up with in order to lose weight. The moment he reached his ideal weight he'd stop. Then he would only start again when he put weight on again.

    I told him that I run so I don't rely on anything to transport my body beyond the power of my legs. "Come the Apocalypse," I joked, "I will have total control of me."

    It resonated with him, though he said nothing at the time. He now runs regularly without me and when we do run together he is pretty good. The important thing is he broke the cycle of starting, improving, stopping, losing all the gains made, starting again, that he was locked into. And he did it by rethinking the pay-off of the effort. Instead of losing weight he now runs to have better control. I don't talk work too much with friends so I don't enquire too deep in how they feel and think unless they volunteer or specifically ask for some advice. But I am willing to bet that his emotions and thinking are more balanced now. Certainly his behavior has changed. For a start he runs regularly alone. He motivates himself. Then he runs regularly. Even more so than I do. His attitude to running changed. That changed everything else for him. Substitute "running" with "life" and you get the picture.

    I really hope this helps a little. Ask away if something isn't clear or triggers your curiosity. And stay safe out there.

    Thanks Damer for bringing up this topic! I'm a firm believer that attitude is what makes or breaks our successes, and I'm fully with you on how you define it and that it's in our control.

    I'm not sure though that I fully follow the example of your running friend. I would have said that what changed was his motivation, not his attitude. From wanting to lose weight to wanting to be in control, the underlaying difference is the motivation for running. How do you translate that into attitude for this post?


      Thank you, Damer, for yet another thought-provoking post. These are truly helpful to me and I'm sure also to many others. Also, they apply to many things in life, not just fitness.

      Like Anek, I thought that this is closely related to motivation. But I'm a little bit confused by the picture, the three-legged stool, supported by words that I recognise but do not fully understand in this context.

      Cognitive basis - what you think about what you're doing, is it a horrid chore or something fun that you get to do every day?

      Behavioural basis - what you actually do, do you do the things, or do you find barriers and excuses?

      Affectative basis - no clue, what's that?

      Could you please explain a bit more what those supporting legs mean? Thanks very much!


        Anek and CarbonaraTamara thank you both for delving deeper. This is not a simple subject to discuss at all, despite my attempts to simplify it above. I will try to be as detailed as possible in my reply and since you overlap each other a little I will use one, expanded explanation to, hopefully, cover both of your questions. First of all, let's look at, again, the way motivation works. It is a feeling that is designed to take us from a state of existence that is energetically higher (i.e. we experience cognitive dissonance, anxiety and/or discomfort) to one that is energetically lower (we feel happier, more reassured, and more content). Discomfort increases the concentration of specific neurotransmitters in our brain which then, as they accumulate, create the electrical potential that leads to the firing of the axons in our brain that make an action happen. When the action has taken place the neurotransmitters that had built up are depleted and our brain experiences an energetically lower (and more stable) state of being. And, we feel happier for a while.

        Motivation then is largely a response to environmental factors we experience and environmental signals we process (the classic example here is that when the weather gets cold we want to get warm). Environment can be anything external of course - office, society, home and, obviously bigger things like nature and the weather.

        The thing about motivation is that in order to work for us it has to be felt, not thought. We all know, for instance, that exercise is good for us. In order to exercise regularly however we need to either experience a serious health scare (in which case fear and death-aversion drives us to exercise) or we need to make it part of who we are, which means we need to stop feeling like it is work. Sure, we work at it, but we do it for other reasons.

        In the case of my friend, wanting to lose weight is something he definitely felt. It led him to exercise, that was definitely his motivation. But the moment he got fitter and slimmer, he stopped feeling like he had to. He is smart and has a really responsible job. Cognitively he knows that the best thing to do is to keep on exercising regularly, yet he failed to translate knowledge into action because he didn't feel the need to do so. With his target achieved his motivation vanished because he no longer felt bad about himself. From an existential point of view he was at an energetically lower, more emotionally stable, place which did not justify going through the angst, pain and focus to run every day again since he was OK. He kept on repeating that cycle, not thinking much about it until we talked. Our talk allowed him to see that the way he responded to the emotional pressure he felt when he put weight on (his wife, BTW is a fitness trainer so you understand why he felt bad when he put weight on) had trapped him in a loop of misery>effort>outcome>elation that just kept on repeating.

        What he did next, and that was entirely up to him, is that he realized that my fitness, which he sought to emulate, for me was a side-effect of my desire to be free of constraints. To have control over my destiny if civilization collapses. The point that civilization collapsing is highly unlikely is moot here. Freedom from constraints and control over ourselves is something we all need and want. By rethinking his own response he changed his attitude. He too needed to feel in control of his life. Like, I said, I don't go into these things too deep with friends unless they open up so my guess here, and it is a guess, is that he sought freedom from the emotional rollercoaster that had him put weight on, experience self-judgement and, potentially, the judgement of others and self-recrimination (and possibly the odd nudge from his wife?). By reframing what he saw he changed the way he dealt with it. That is attitude. Attitude is always our "how" not our "what". Has his motivation changed as a result of this? Well, I'd say yes and no. Obviously he still needs to be fit and slim. Keeping the weight off is still high on his agenda. But, seeing how he runs so regularly now, my guess is that he has refocused at least part of his motivation in order to experience the energetically lower states that keep us at doing something. But that only requires a refocus on other external/environmental factors. For instance he may now take pleasure from the fact that when we go running we are equals or near equals. Certainly I no longer had to pep-talk him, so we both approach the run differently and our interaction is different as a result. It is definitely more enjoyable and way more fun for both of us.

        Now that we have seen, I hope, how a change of attitude can change our behavior and change our motivation we need to see how attitude, exactly is created.

        Cognitive basis is what we know. Our knowledge-based judgements, aims, goals and behaviors. I know, for instance, that unless I continue to exercise, at my age, the natural outcome of my body at a cellular level is decline due to ageing. So, regardless of how I feel I am determined to not let that happen. But just knowing this is not quite enough, especially seeing how I can always say to myself "skip this day and work out twice as hard tomorrow". This is where the affective basis comes in.

        Affective basis is everything we feel. It is always more powerful than what we know because every decision we make is emotional (our brain responds neurochemically to emotions and they lead to action - thoughts don't do any of this) and we use logic to justify it afterwards. Again, from my own practise, I know what damage ageing can do to my body. I have sufficient direct experience from the decline in physical ability that comes from not training hard enough due to serious sports injuries to understand how ageing will make me feel. Because I feel so strongly against being helpless in my body I am actually highly motivated to not stop working out even when, at the end of crazy day, I feel half-dead with fatigue. The way we feel about things, past, present and future is the affective element that goes into our attitude.

        Behavioral basis is how we behave in general not just in the instance where we get to see and judge our attitude. If our behavior is consistent it creates a pattern which has a momentum of its own. If, for instance, we are kind to everyone we meet, we find it really hard to be rude and unkind and have a verbal argument with people who have upset us and who may truly deserve our anger. It takes more effort for us because it breaks the pattern of who we are. Behavior, the way we think and the way we feel are key parts of who we are. Our identity. In my case (to use a safe example), I don't easily take physical shortcuts. For instance, I live on the fifth floor. In the course of a month I will take the elevator only 50% of the time. I won't drive somewhere when I can walk. If I visit someone who lives 3 - 4km away I will walk and use the time to immerse myself in the environment as I go through it, looking at people, shops and buildings. These are things I can't do when I am driving and have my eyes on the road.

        All of these things are expressed in my attitude: I am physical in the sense that I don't shy away from doing something that may involve a lot of physical work. Three summers ago I helped a friend chop down and uproot a tree in his garden that was affecting the foundations (to make up for it he's planted four more further away from his house). I swung an ax for two days. Needles to say I gained fresh respect for lumberjacks and for a week afterwards I was discovering pains and aches in parts of me where I didn't think it was possible to experience pains and aches. Because I am familiar with physical exercise and how it works I fully expected it. Normally, you'd think that would either stop me from engaging in this or do it half-heartedly or stop when I got tired. But I didn't because I saw it as a brilliant opportunity to do something I had never done before and experience something new. That was my attitude talking, not my motivation. And that attitude brought me back, swinging at what felt like a trunk made from iron the day after when my shoulders felt on fire and my forearms could barely produce a grip on the ax handle and when each swing made my obliques feel like they were being ground on glass. (Yep, it was that bad). Laughing it off and tipping my hat to lumberjacks during it however got me through.

        Attitude is produced by these three elements: thoughts, feelings and actions but in turn affects them in a feedback loop. Having done the tree-chopping bit, for instance, I now know that I can handle such things, feel capable in my own physical ability to do so and am willing to do so again given half a chance. Attitude reinforces attitude. If it is positive it takes us higher and higher. If it is negative it heads us in the opposite direction until we hit bottom.

        I really hope this helps and I have shed a little more light on how attitude works.


          Thanks for your detailed explanation! It does indeed help. A few weeks ago I read an article that talked about the author's personal experiences trying to get into a running habit during lockdown. The thing that stuck with me from that article was that she said something like, I had to get rid of my cynical attitude and adopt the happy-clappy, you-can-do-it, fitness instructor attitude. She said it in a cynical way, but she had a good point.


            CarbonaraTamara in some contexts, but not all, the "fake it till you make it" mantra is highly effective.


              Thanks Damer for the exhaustive explanation! I understand your point better now.


                Thanks for the tips and may the 4th be with you Damer


                  That's true 💯


                    That sounds quite a bit like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?