The Power of Self-Reinforcement
Self-Reinforcement is a powerful way to strengthen new ways of thinking and acting. How do I know this? For most of my professional career I’ve helped folks develop their character and empower themselves. At first, I worked mostly with survivors of toxic relationships. These folks were deeply emotionally bruised and sometimes nearly defeated. And I wanted to help these folks get back on their feet.
Eventually, I also turned my attention to disturbed characters. I wanted to help stem the tide of character dysfunction. And as anyone who’s undertaken this task can tell you, helping a character-impaired individual become a better person is particularly challenging work. But whether you’re trying to recover from a toxic relationship or trying to build your moral character one thing is certain: to break old patterns and solidfy healthier ones successfully you need reinforcement. And you simply can’t always depend on external sources of encouragement. So, self-reinforcement is a failproof way to solidify new learning.
Some Learning Basics
All advanced creatures have the capacity to learn. But we humans have an exponentially greater capacity to acquire new knowledge, skills, and habits. But learning anything new equires two things: our full attention to the tasks at hand and reinforcement for executing the tasks. And reinforcment is crucial if you are to retain any new learning. Nothing we’ve ever learned can be fully unlearned. That’s why old habits are so hard to break. So learning to do things differently usually requires monumental focus and commitment. Perhaps that’s why early on in my career I came to appreciate and rely on two key tools of change: covert self-monitoring and covert self-reinforcement. (See: Personal Empowerment Basics.) (See also the chapter on charcter growth in Character Disturbance.)
Carving Out a New Life
You are your best single resource. That’s why growing and strenthening your character is the secret to empowered living. But first, you have to really get to know yourself. That means making an honest appraisal of your natural propensities. It also means facing and examining the many experiences that shaped your attitudes, outlook on life, etc. That can re-open some old wounds. But the goal is to take full ownership of all the things that have contributed to shaping your character.
Now, really knowing and understanding yourself is just the beginning of the character development process. Once you’ve gotten a fairly good read on the kind of person that nature and your life experiences predisposed you to become, you have to become intimately acquainted with the kind of person you genuinely are at the core. And you also have to reckon with the kind of person you sincerely want to be. That might mean uncovering, embracing and possibly re-committing yourself to core principles. Then you have to find the courage and strength to live up to your own ideals. Developing this kind of integrity is the challenge of a lifetime. But it’s the path to real empowerment.
The Techniques of Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement
Covert self-monitoring is the process by which we train ourselves to be more aware of our interaction patterns as well as the “triggers” that prompt our reactions. It’s also a way to become more aware of the kinds of thoughts we entertain in our appraisal of situations, and the consequences that follow the behaviors that stem from our perspective. It’s a type of mental note taking and awareness heightening.
The tool of covert self-reinforcement seems relatively self-explanatory. Instead of being reinforced by an external agent for executing a new behavior, you give yourself an internal (mental) pat on the back. And this strategy has many, many payoffs. For one, the recognition and validation you give yourself is a rewarding experience that increases the likelihood that you’ll repeat your newly learned behavior. For another, being your own agent of reinforcement helps you build self-reliance. When you’re less reliant on external sources of support, you’re much less vulnerable to unhealthy dependency.
Next week I’ll go into more detail about these strategies, using some powerful illustrative examples. making you less reliant on external sources of motivation and encouragement. As a helping professional, I have all too often witnessed the dangers inherent in a person becoming unhealthily dependent upon his or her therapist for affirmation and support. Giving yourself positive strokes for doing things differently is a potent motivational tool.