Rewards, Habits and the “I Deserve It” Trap

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.


What Does “Enough” Mean?

What does %22enough%22 mean to you?

“Too often I see people focusing so hard on the final outcome (lose 10 pounds, squat 200, make six figures) and not enough on the process, the things they can control in the moment, right now. Then they become disappointed when the outcome takes longer to achieve than planned.” Steph Gaudreau

Steph Gaudreau, the woman behind Stupid Easy Paleo and the podcast Harder to Kill Radio, is one of my favorite people I’ve never met. She’s about as real as they come, isn’t afraid to rock the boat but isn’t controversial for the sake of controversy, and is PASSIONATE about teaching women the gift of strong bodies. I seriously can’t wait to meet her one day.

The above quote was taken from a video she posted sometime last week and that line smacked me in the forehead. It was one more nudge in a series of nudges I’ve had this year to scale back, stop chasing the future, stop chasing a body fat percentage, stop chasing the if/then or when/then. Silly me, I reached the “feel better” part of (or so I thought) of the mantra that got me started me and kept me on this path for the better part of 2 years and somehow forgot that just being off all of the medications wasn’t really the benchmark I thought I wanted.

Around the same time Steph posted that video, I got into a conversation with a friend and client around what “enough” means. Those two might seem like unrelated events, but bear with me.

Something I’ve realized in the past handful of months is that when all of the mud and muck are washed away, everything comes down to “enough” for me. Scarcity is a concept I grew up with and no matter how I try, it’s turning out to be harder to shake than I ever could have imagined. So this conversation about “enough” came down to this question: What does “I am enough” mean to me?

  • I feed my body in a way that is supportive of it’s needs
  • I move my body in ways that support it’s strength, it’s flexibility, it’s hormonal balance, and with the intent that I NOT require assistance in my old age
  • I am mindful of my emotions and my thoughts
  • I nurture my relationships and build strong social connections because I require that in order to thrive
  • I do things that scare me
  • I laugh daily
  • I know my value and the value of what I bring to the world

If you look closely, you’ll see that these actions are all process. They are the process behind the life I want to live. They are the path, the road, the map, whatever you want to call it. They are actions for the sake of themselves – like exercise for the sake of exercise instead of as a means of self-abuse, numbing, or avoidance.

This doesn’t mean don’t have goals, aspirations, or dreams. Quite the contrary. To paraphrase The Cheshire Cat, any road is good if you don’t know where you are going. You MUST know what you want in order to figure out what the path is. It’s a non-negotiable of a thriving life. The big lesson here is that knowing what you want isn’t enough. Yes, sometimes you can get there by just taking the next best step. As a matter of fact, I’ve used that method with great success. But consider this the set it and forget it method: know exactly what you want, then forget about it and focus on the process. Get so good at the process that you effortlessly replicate it. Get so good at the process that you won’t have to worry about how you keep whatever it is you wanted because you’ll just keep doing what you were doing. Get so good at the process that 50 years from now you have no regrets over having not done something because the process gave you the life you wanted to live.

Your turn: I’d love to hear what your version of “enough” includes. Post a comment here or jump over to the Facebook page and comment there, I’d love to hear from you.

Where are you struggling in your life right now? How can I help you? Whether you are looking for feedback on a some changes you might make to your diet or are looking for longer term accountability as you tackle some big things, I offer one on one coaching options that suit your needs. Click here to schedule your session and get started creating your amazing life.