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rewards and behavior change

Posted Jan 15 2009 4:55pm

I’ve noted that not only I am having trouble with the reward concept in our weekly goals. It’s one of the hardest parts of goal setting for me. I guess my head says I’m an adult and I ought to be able to just *do* these things that I know are good for me. A lot of times my “reward” seems to be simply not beating myself up over not doing something - not the best reward, especially since there’s a definite flavor of waiting to screw up so I can beat myself up.

In that vein, I was reading Geneen Roth’s column in the October (I think) Good Housekeeping last night. [note: some of her articles are archived online but I don't see this one listed] She wrote about not only how to stop bingeing, but not hating yourself when/if you do. My only immediate reward for not bingeing or grazing is not putting myself down for a behavior that is legitimately hard to break. Yes, the big picture rewards are important but they can feel really out of touch.

Geneen wrote about how to treat yourself after a binge:

Be unspeakably kind. In the empty fullness left after bingeing, the “I can’t believe you did this again, what’s the matter with you, you are a failure now and forevermore” voices sense a place to step in. And when they do, they roar.

Don’t let them. …Treat yourself as if you were doing your very best. Live as if you deserve to be here, regardless of what you have just eaten. And know that every time you remind yourself that you belong here regardless of what you weigh, you are speaking the truth.

And that is unspeakably hard and makes my eyes tear up to think about. Particularly right now I am afraid to screw things up. I’ve worked very hard to get the progress that I’ve made and I don’t want to resume old behaviors. Trust me, old behaviors are there just waiting to happen. My tendency is to blame myself and go even further once I screw up a little. “Well, I’ve already blown today,” I say. “I may as well……”

So, in the spirit of trying to change behavior and not have an all or nothing attitude, I need to remember that all behavior training involves successive approximations. Remember, we’re building on success, not setting ourselves up for failure. Therefore, in my reward plan which is loosely forming on crediting myself with $1 for something I want for each night I don’t graze or binge, I’m going to give myself half credit for stopping the behavior even if I got off track a little. I think that’s a good plan.

Oh, and yes, reward is incredibly important when changing behaviors. The moral superiority of being able to say “See, I did it” doesn’t really do enough for most of us. If the behavior has no reward you simply aren’t going to continue to do it. If you’re breaking a habit - like smoking - and your only reward is the jitters, cravings, and irritability - how long do you think it’ll take to return to smoking?

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