Covert Self-Monitoring and Reinforcement
Covert self-monitoring and reinforcement is a program for personal growth. The method is straightforward:
- Take sharp note of any troubling way of thinking, feeling, or acting
- At least in the present moment, change course
- Acknowledge the merit of your effort – reinforce yourself for thinking or acting differently
This method is soundly based in the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). (For more see the series beginning: A Primer on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.) Trauma survivors can use the method to find greater peace and power in the present moment.
As hard as it is to believe sometimes, even folks with some character disturbance can benefit from covert self-monitoring and reinforcement. Morally immature folks can use the method to become more mature.
Our high capacity to learn distinguishes us humans. But no new learning takes deep root without reinforcement. That’s why the two principles in the aforementioned method are so important. Monitoring yourself and changing direction is all well and good. But new ways won’t stick without abundant, consistent reinforcement.
After his third marriage failed, it seemed Larry had to come to grips with some things. Perhaps there was more to his relationship problems than just never having found the right woman. He’d always told himself that was the issue. But even if there were a grain of truth to such a notion, he was the one who’d made the choices after all. So, something necessarily to be amiss on his end. He just couldn’t deny that any longer.
“Larry” had been dragged into counseling a few times before. At one point or another each of his ex-wives insisted on it. But his heart was never in it. For one thing, he simply couldn’t bring himself to trust anyone or their guidance. He only trusted himself. So while he appeared to listen, he never really took in anything a therapist said. When I met him, he couldn’t even remember any of the names of therapists he’d seen.
Larry’s Trust and Ego Issues
Larry came from a truly dysfunctional home. In his early years, his alcoholic father beat him mercilously. And his chronically depressed and equally battered mother couldn’t protect him. He learned early on that he was all he really had. And he understandably came to see himself as the highest functioning person in his home. He eventually took great pride in himself as both a fighter and a survivor.
Larry carried his high opinion of himself into all his relationships. He also brought with him his determination to control. And he had himself convinced he was nothing like his father. But while there was some truth to that, he was enough like him in other, subtle ways to make life for his partners a living hell. Perhaps that’s why each of his marriages lasted only a few years.
Turning Things Around
Larry didn’t like it at first when I told him that for things in his life to really change, he would have to change. He especially didn’t like it when I told him the change would have to be more than superficial. But he also knew it to be true. At least he had the capacity for that much honesty. So, as hard as he knew it would be, he would have to make a different person of himself. And to do that he’d have to do something he’d resisted all his life: submit himself to authoritative guidance.
One of the responsibility-avoidance and manipulation “tactics” Larry really had to work on was minimization. (See: p. 115-166 in In Sheep’s Clothing.) Sure, he did not physically abuse his partners like his father abused him and his mother. But he would have to stop minimizing how abusive he was in other ways. At first, I would point out minimizations and reinforce him for being more honest. But over time, I expected him to catch himself in the tactic and correct it. And I woud expect him to acknowledge the value of that effort. That’s what covert self-monitoring and reinforcement is all about.
Staying the Course
Larry’s fourth marriage has lasted over 20 years. He’s still not an easy guy to live with at times. But he admits it when he falls into bad habits and continuously works to correct them. That allows his partner to be forgiving while not becoming a doormat.
Larry’s kept a commitment to growing in character. That’s largely because he’s experienced the benefits. Still, it’s a mark of some integrity. And Larry keeps up his motivation by remembering to self-reinforce every intentional effort. Now, how deep the changes in him go, no one can judge for sure. Still, the world’s a slightly better place these days. And that’s because one person decided to stop minimizing so much and face the abusive tendencies in himself that so damaged his own character formation and plagued his relationships.