When you want something about yourself, your life or even someone else’s behavior to change, how do you go about it?
We spend much of our lives wanting to make changes in one way or another. Having goals is an important part of life, as is learning to accept oneself right where you’re at, but that topic is for another day. Today I want to talk about how to go about behavior change with the most effective approach.
When I was in my early 20’s I wanted my body to look a certain way – a common experience for young womxn raised in a society obsessed with the female body, and sending clear messages through all forms of media about what precisely is and isn’t acceptable. This is ALSO a topic for another day, although I talked some about this in February’s Blog post which you can read HERE.
Everything else aside, my desired outcome required diet and exercise changes and so using the techniques we are most exposed to in society, and often in family upbringing, I dove right in using an inner dialogue based on self-punishment to reach my goals. ‘Get moving you lazy ass!’ Name calling, tearing myself down to try to build myself up. Eeek!
Just typing that is embarrassing and sad (although I now have compassion for my younger self)… and I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s had such an inner dialogue, especially when younger. On a backpacking trip in my 20’s with close friends, one of my best friends joked that my inner coach sounded like (and I quote), ‘An angry ex-military drill sergeant.’
I still laugh at that, even though in hindsight it’s also sad – I used to speak to myself in a way that I would NEVER speak to anyone else. I am often so thankful that I chose to study psychology and learn MUCH more effective ways to promote change, in both myself and others – even if that drill sergeant still tries to show up sometimes out of habit.
For some reason, our society leans heavily on punishment to promote behavior change and there’s a few reasons why. In the book ‘Don’t Shoot The Dog’ by Karen Pryor she talks about what is so addictive about using punishment.
‘Punishment is reinforcing to the punisher because it maintains dominance.’
A natural human tendency built into DNA when you look into species survival, HOWEVER we are also evolving as a species especially in the area of consciousness. Punishment has a MAJOR side-effect of damaging relationships. PLUS, it only works when the punisher is present. Punishment also does not teach a new, more preferred behavior – only what not to do – so true, intrinsic behavior change does not establish through punishment.
Here’s an important note: punishment is not just the most ‘extreme’ thing you may imagine, it’s any negative thing we don’t like that doesn’t feel good – however mild.
The wild thing is that we have other options to promote behavior change, and ample research has shown that positive reinforcement is THE BEST strategy to create change. Positive reinforcement is the use of some sort of positive stimuli after a desired behavior (i.e. the dog sits and you give him a cookie). Who doesn’t like cookies? Who doesn’t like rewards? Nobody!
Even positive reinforcement has to be used strategically: the reward needs to be directly following the behavior you want, and at some point you want to taper your reward schedule to now and then. After all, we can’t have cookies after EVERY time we make the bed.
We can use positive reinforcement both internally for ourselves as well as in our relationships, to help others be more motivated to give us what we want. Let’s start on the inside though.
What’s something you’d like to change in your life, or accomplish? Maybe it’s something you don’t really enjoy doing, or you just keep postponing it. See if you can set yourself up on a ‘reward schedule’ to help reinforce your behavior changes and get yourself through.
Let me give you an example of my Sundays. After learning this, I realized the value of getting ‘work’ done first, and leaving play/fun for after (reward). On Sundays I get all household chores busted out first thing, knowing that as SOON as I’m done I get to sink in to my favorite activities and savor them FULLY because nothing else is lingering. Have you ever ruined an entire day putting something off, and being unable to actually enjoy your relaxation because you know you’re procrastinating? This tool will help you!
If your goal is a little bigger than weekly household chores, you’ve got to be sure you break it down into smaller pieces. And reward yourself for each step of the way! Waiting to give a reward until the larger goal or behavior change is reached is NOT effective. It goes against the laws of ‘shaping’ behavior where we want to reward steps in the right direction, even if it isn’t quite fully where we want things to be yet.
You might be asking, ‘What the hell do I reward myself with?’ It doesn’t have to be something major! It can be things like a peaceful walk outside, time reading your favorite book, time with friends and don’t forget the good old-fashioned positive self-talk. “Way to go Katy, you did it!”
It really makes a difference! The brain scans show it. When we talk nicely to ourselves, praise ourselves and reward ourselves – the pleasure center of our brain activates . Negative self-talk and self-punishment activates a much more aversive part of the brain, and it only leads to avoidance of something, not creation of positive new habits .
Now I’m not saying there is no place for punishment in life, there certainly is, but except for extreme circumstances, usually natural consequences are enough to motivate us to do something different next time.
OK let’s talk about relationships now. How can we use positive reinforcement to increase the chances of others doing what we’d like. I know, I know… I can practically hear you through the screen, ‘That sounds manipulative!’
Here’s the thing, to live is to manipulate!
Let’s start with the definition:
a: to handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner.
b: to control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.’
OK wait we’ve got two DIFFERENT definitions. Basically ‘to manipulate’ simply means to try to change something. When I’m trying to open a jar of pickles, I am manipulating that jar of pickles.
The trick is to understand that we can manipulate skillfully, which means people walk away from an encounter happy to be in our presence, happy to help us out etc. Or we can manipulate in a way that is harmful and hurts others.
To survive and get our needs met is to manipulate, which we start doing from our very first cry as an infant. It is only natural that we seek to get our needs met, avoid pain and increase pleasure. These are not bad things! It’s called being alive. 🙂
If we need something from others, using positive reinforcement to promote change is going to leave a much better taste in their mouths.
This looks something like:
‘I would really appreciate it if..’
‘I really enjoy your company when…’
‘I’ll cover dinner tonight if …’
No guilt trips, no passive aggression, no threats. And if there is a behavior that’s irking the hell out of you, one of the most effective techniques to ‘extinguish’ that behavior is to ignore it (depending on the severity of that irksome behavior of course).
There is a scientific tool called ‘Planned Ignoring’ where you don’t respond at all to an undesirable behavior…because guess what, your behavior is either reinforcing or punishing the other person’s behavior whether you’re aware of it or not. Even ‘negative attention’ can be reinforcing. If someone ‘gets a rise out of you’ or sees that their irksome behavior has affected you, it may actually strengthen their behavior subconsciously over time.
*I want to make clear that this does NOT apply to any type of abusive behaviors. Ignoring an abusive or highly hurtful behavior is not the strategy to use in this case, and I highly recommend working with a licensed professional to identify the most effective strategy for your unique situation.*
These principles of behavior change get a bit deeper than this, but I hope I’ve summarized them here for you to at least get started. Start on the inside, and notice your inner coach/guide, are they using punishment or positive reinforcement to help you reach your goals? I would encourage you to start shaping that narrative towards positive reinforcement! It takes time and practice, but I promise in the long run it’s worth it!
I exercise now for very different reasons than I did at 20 yrs. old, and sometimes that critical military drill sergeant tries to rear their ugly head, but with time and practice I’ve strengthened my inner coach to be much more supportive and positively reinforcing. It makes the journey towards your goals much more bearable, and it increases your chances of actually reaching those goals without burning out and giving up. PLUS it doesn’t damage your relationship with yourself.
For an easy read that goes more in depth on these techniques check out:
‘Don’t Shoot The Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training’ by: Karen Pryor