Over the past several weeks, the subject of “rewards” has come up multiple times. Each instance was within the context of reinforcing a behavior, not an outcome. And each instance brought out varying degrees of resistance from me, so much so I exercised my “phone a friend” option to get some help unpacking what was going on.
I’m at the tail end of the last generation before everyone started receiving participation awards. Every single award I received, I earned, whether it be first place ribbons for music competitions (I played trumpet from the time I was 9 until I was 19), prize money for a poem I wrote about trash in the 6th grade or placing in the top three during a Speech competition.
But it goes further than being a generational thing: I was reared on outcome based rewarding. If I wanted my driver’s license, I had to give my parents straight A’s. 3 YEARS IN A ROW. And then I had to KEEP my grades where they were in order to keep driving. That’s actually the only example I can give because otherwise, all reinforcement was negative i.e. so I didn’t get yelled at.
So rewarding myself because I DID something I said I would feels very “participation award” to me. But as I dig deeper into the research I’m starting to understand something key: rewarding the behavior is like focusing on progress as opposed to the goal. You’re reinforcing pleasantly something you want to keep doing so that you eventually reach the goal. The goal is a reward in and of itself. It’s about progress, not perfection.
Eventually, in this conversation with my friend, I agreed to try rewarding myself though I didn’t do exactly what we talked about. By the end of the week, I knew I’d reached an obvious reward point: I completed the first week of a new strength training program. I want to reinforce this behavior because I want to complete the program, something I’ve never actually done. But the second I started thinking about how I could reward myself, I came up with my daily movement goal as a trump card.
I try to get some type of movement in every single day, whether it be a walk with my dog, yoga, or even 25 kettlebell swings. Because I missed a single day of movement due to my work schedule last week, I wanted to negate the fact that I’d completed the strength training program as prescribed – 4 days, each day with a different focus. I even managed to get in a mobility day and a walk. And yet, I didn’t want that to be enough.
Eventually, I saw reason and decided that I had done what I said I would. So I chose to paint my fingernails, something I rarely take the time to do anymore.
This is where we get into the “I deserve it” trap. Sometimes people take things too far and decide that EVERY behavior is worth reinforcing, including the negative. I hear an awful lot of “I deserve it” when it comes to unhealthy rewards. This often looks like rewarding with food/drink or spending money, two behaviors that often generate guilt and can be (and often are) forms of self-sabotage. As a matter of fact, one of my rules is no rewarding with food/alcohol or by spending money (though a small expenditure can be warranted and/or necessary sometimes).
Here’s why: most people have health goals they want to reach or financial goals they are working towards. By rewarding your week of no missed workouts with a donut, because let’s face it, we don’t reward ourselves with healthy food, you’ve already undone any positive emotional progress. The same goes for buying yourself a new $300 handbag because you just paid off one credit card while you still have $20k in student loans. And what you’ll almost always hear when something like this happens is “I deserve it”.
The question you should always ask when rewarding yourself is what am I rewarding? Am I rewarding a behavior I want to reinforce? The follow-up question should be how do I reinforce this in a way that is positive and not in a way that might set me back?
Ultimately, I ended up painting my nails while I had my Sunday night bath. That might sound risky but I assure you everything worked out just fine. Multitasking is something I kind of have to do presently, so I ran with it. I have no idea what I’ll do when I complete this week, but I will reward myself when I complete all the workouts for the week.
What’s your relationship with rewarding? Are there any behaviors you want to reinforce that you think might benefit from rewards? I’d be really interested in your thoughts and experiences.
Have you ever noticed what stress feels like?
Yesterday I sat in a recliner at my acupuncture provider’s (it’s community acupuncture so we’re all in one big room of healing) and responded to her usual “how are you” with “extremely stressed”. She assured me she could help and set to work placing needles.
As I closed my eyes, several things occurred to me: I was reminded that the brain and body cannot tell the difference between real (being chased by a lion) and imagined (ruminating on an altercation at work); I suddenly became aware of how stress FELT in my body; and I became acutely aware of exactly how it is that stress kills.
I sat there with my eyes closed and did a full body scan. I began to realize that I have several physical tells when it comes to stress: I grit my teeth to the point of making my jaw sore; I cave in on myself, rounding my shoulders and spine; I stop breathing fully, instead taking very shallow and short breaths; and the hardest to ignore is the stress migraines.
Can you imagine living with these symptoms long term? Many of us do, without even noticing.
I could get into the science but instead, I’m going to invite you to do some self-investigation. Do you know what your tells are, how your body tells you you have too much stress? If you don’t, here’s your opportunity to consider it. I want you to do this for one reason: if you KNOW, you can do something about it and sooner.
Information is power. You cannot address something when you don’t know it’s going on. Stress is unavoidable, but it IS within our power to mitigate its effects. Mitigating those effects can be the difference between a long and healthy life and one of chronic illness.
Ultimately, it is up to you to know your body and do something about it.
Have a lovely weekend!
Sometimes great things come to me during my morning meditation. Here’s an excerpt of the email that is going out to my subscribers Friday morning, sparked by a meditation session:
You see that disclaimer with just about anything that is trying to sell a dream, weight loss programs especially and get rich schemes; anything that tries to circumnavigate actual effort; anything that wants us to ignore what we already know – that anything we want takes effort and work.
You know that saying we all heard as kids? Money doesn’t grow on trees (well, yes, actually it does, but I’m not trying to be a smartass here). Sometimes it was said in exasperation when we were careless with our things. Most often though, it occurred to me in this meaning: there are no handouts in life. You have to earn it.
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