We enrolled in training lessons at the local pet store. We humans were taught to give a command and show the puppy what that word means. For instance, we would say, “Sit,” and then put the puppy in the sitting position. Once Elsa caught on and began to respond to the word, “Sit” without being shown, I was to give her a reward, a little tasty treat.
The instructor taught us to ignore the behavior we didn’t want and reward the behavior we did want. So, if I said, “Sit” and Elsa walked over to me to get a treat, I was to turn my head and ignore her. But when she heard the command and actually sat down, then she got the treat along with praise and smiles and pets.
Eventually, once she learned to sit on command every time, I was to reduce the number of times I gave the reward, so she learned to sit with or without the reward. The behavior became a well-learned habit, an automatic response to the command.
How do we decide which of our own behaviors are the most important ones to reward and reinforce? Do we start right in by focusing only on our choices of food and exercise or do we step back and begin by rewarding our choices of thought and our emotional responses? In actual fact, the two go hand in hand. I find it useful to start with my thoughts and with my self-talk because that’s where all my actions begin.
For instance, I might find myself doing some emotional eating. My first thought might be, “I’m so bad!” It would not be helpful to punish myself or berate myself for having that thought. Doing that would only make me feel worse and possibly trigger more eating. So, I want to let that thought go, or ‘ignore it’ so to speak. Instead, I tell myself (give the command) to find a more supportive thought. Thinking, “I could have done that differently,” gets a reward!
Every time we hear ourselves engaged in negative self-talk, we want to let it go. And every time we change a negative self-talk statement into a supportive self-talk statement, we get a reward. When we first start doing this, we get a reward each and every time. By doing this, we reinforce that supportive self-talk until it becomes our go-to thought, our go-to way of thinking. We train ourselves into the habit of being self-supportive and self-affirming. Eventually, we don’t need the reward each and every time, because those positive, self-affirming thoughts have become a well-practiced behavior.
So, how can we reward ourselves while we’re learning a new behavior? All of our lives we’ve been trained to think of food as a reward, and to think of a treat in terms of food. A person who is too thin and is trying to gain weight might indeed use a tasty treat as a reward. In that case it would be an appropriate treat for rewarding a change in self-talk. However, that person might not think of food as a treat at all, and for those of us who are trying to lose weight, using food as a reward to retrain our habits of thought doesn’t work, either.
The simplest, easiest, least costly reward we can give ourselves is a mental high five! Or that exuberant “YES!” that we say when something resonates with us on a deep level. This may sound cheesy, but I asked the members of my weekly support group to brainstorm ways they would reward themselves. They said the best reward is the feeling they get when they find themselves having the supportive thought. They think the action is the reward itself.
And isn’t that true? When we find ourselves actually doing something we weren’t sure we could do, or even something we thought we absolutely couldn’t do, isn’t the sense of accomplishment wonderful? We begin to believe in ourselves and we get excited. If I can do this, what else can I do? If I can become skilled in this behavior or activity, then bring on the next one!
Believing in ourselves is the key to making permanent change. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right.” Once we begin to have faith in ourselves and in our abilities to change our habits of thought, then changing our habits of action becomes much easier. Our thoughts can seem so automatic and second nature and we have so many of them that it can seem like an impossible task to corral those thoughts into a pattern of positivity. Once we prove to ourselves we can change our thoughts we build confidence. With that increased confidence we start to believe that training our actions is achievable, too.
Naturally, there’s more than one way to reward ourselves. That mental high five, or ‘attagirl/attaboy’ works for a while, but personally, I want something visual to show me the progress I’m making. Maybe it’s as simple as getting a jar and a bag of beans. Every time you ignore your negative self-talk, you put a bean in the jar. Every time you turn a thought from negative to self-affirming, a bean goes in the jar. And every time you’re go-to thought is positive and self-affirming it’s bonus time! 5 beans go into the jar!
The bean jar is one way of counting progress and measuring change. Using the same goal of having a visible and tangible way to measure progress, and taking a lesson from the practice of keeping a gratitude jar, you can keep a pad of post-it notes handy. Take a moment to write down the thought you let go, the thought you turned around, and the go-to thoughts that are now in place for you. As well as seeing your jar fill up, you can go back and read through your notes to see exactly which limiting thoughts you’ve let go of and turned around.
It is exactly because our thoughts are intangible and we have so many of them, that we want to have a visual aid to track our progress. It’s true that once we start noticing our thoughts, noticing our self-talk, and noticing our go-to reaction to things, we automatically begin to change our thinking. Once we are more aware of the thoughts we have throughout the day, we can’t help but see which ones bring us joy and which ones increase our challenges. So, some of the work is accomplished just through awareness. But having that visual reminder that we are actively working to support and encourage ourselves moment by moment throughout the day is a huge reward. Seeing our progress encourages us to keep going and it reminds us that our commitment to our own happiness is worthwhile.
So, start today. Tell those negative self-talk thoughts to roll over and play dead! You’ve got lots of positive, self-affirming thoughts to fetch and play ball with! And be sure to reward yourself along the way. You’ve got this! (Who’s a good girl? Who’s a good boy?)