Most of us who are trying to lose weight tend to focus on the negatives and what we’re doing wrong. I believe it comes from too much outside influence. We all have that family member or ‘friend’ who is only too eager to point out where and how you messed up again. So naturally, that’s what we look for since our errors have been pointed out repeatedly (and gleefully) by everyone in our lives to whom we turn for guidance.
At the risk of doing it again, that’s wrong! Seriously, though, while it can be helpful, focusing only on the negatives and the errors is negative reinforcement. Some of you may remember that I have dogs (I also have a pet blog where I blab about them endlessly!) But I’ve learned a lot from having dogs in my life since forever and one of the most important things I’ve learned is the value of positive reinforcement.
When I started college (back in the ’80’s– aack!), one of my first classes was Intro to Psychology where the professor explained the difference between negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement, and since I had recently gotten my first Yorkie, I decided I would use positive reinforcement to teach him and he learned so fast that I’ve used it with all my dogs. It’s the only way I teach my pets what I want them to do and not do. What’s more important is that it’s fostered a sense of trust among us and a natural inclination to listen to each other.
We all know what negative reinforcement is even if we don’t know what it’s called. It’s where your dog pees on the rug and you shout and spank him and rub his nose in it so he “knows not to do it again!” I’m pretty sure that’s never worked for anyone I know who has dogs. It teaches them to hide from you and to be afraid of you. With positive reinforcement, if I find that one of them peed on the rug, I point at it, tell them “no” in a firm voice and then clean it up. No shouting or spanking or nose-rubbing. When we go outside and they do their business where they’re supposed to, I make a big deal about how they’re the best doggies in the whole world ( because they are!) and it encourages them to do it again. They make the connections: “outside= yay! great doggies! and inside = blah.” Why pee inside and get blah when I can pee on the lawn and be the best puppy in the whole world? I gotta pee anyway so why not get praised for it?
Some people think that adding negative reinforcement to that increases the connection: “inside = bad spanking but outside = good doggie!” The problem is that whole ‘teaching them to be afraid of you’ plus dogs (and people) develop a tolerance to scolding and negative treatment. We learn to deal with it. Anyone with teenagers know this: no matter how much you yell at your kids for not taking out the trash, they just block it out. They stop listening, and so do the dogs.
Praise however is a different matter. When I tell my dogs how great they are, they are always paying attention to that. They love getting petted and get excited when I tell them how good they are, so they are getting the point: “I did something good and I want to repeat it as often as I can so I can get more hugs and pats and toys.” You would think they would get bored with it, but over the years of using positive reinforcement with my dogs, I have found they respond better to it, learn faster once they make the connections and they seem to pay better attention to me when I talk to them. They listen and respond to me and I think I pay more attention to what they tell me too.
When it comes to eating better and weight loss, we tend to use the same tools we do for the dogs peeing on the rug: we shout at ourselves, belittle ourselves and do the emotional equivalent to rubbing our nose in the spot. We had dessert when we went out last night: “I’m sabotaging myself! Why do I keep making the same bad choices? I can’t say no to temptation! I’m never going to lose this weight! What’s wrong with me?” We look at ourselves in the mirror and point out our muffin top, our chubby thighs, our great big butt, and that bra spillover that just makes our arms and chest look awful. We’re trying to reinforce to ourselves how much weight we need to lose so stop with the desserts, stupid!
Does it really work for anyone? Or does it just make us feel like crappy failures because we ate dessert when we obviously look like an escapee from a Fat Farm? The same thing happens to us that happens when we go bonkers at the dog because he piddled on the rug: we ‘hide’ until we eventually stop listening to it. When someone asks how we’re doing on our weight loss, we gloss over or omit our recent transgressions and tell them we’re doing “fine” or “okay.” When someone points out that “maybe you’d do better if you didn’t have dessert or bread or cookies or frappuccinos,” our emotions are all over the place (anger; embarrassment; shame; frustration; hurt) or we’ve been chastised slash reprimanded so often that we don’t hear it anymore, a la teenagers: “yeah yeah yeah, I screwed up again! Whatever!” It doesn’t matter if we are the ones doing it to ourselves or if it’s that alleged friend or even someone who truly cares about us: after awhile, getting our nose rubbed in our screw-ups stops being effective.
What’s worse is that we stop trying! It’s not that we want to give up; it’s that the constant accrual of screw-ups keeps growing and in the face of the overwhelming ‘failures,’ we simply feel defeated. “I’ve blown my diet four times this week and it’s only Wednesday- like one more screw up is going to matter now!” This kind of thinking really doesn’t lend itself to success, does it? Even if we are motivated to ‘win today!’, once that negative thinking creeps in, there goes our motivation! We all know that it’s hard staying motivated because it requires constant stoking like a camp fire: if we aren’t adding fuel to the motivational fire, it goes out, and remembering to keep it hot is work. We all need motivation from time to time but staying motivated when you and others are always pointing out your failures is even harder, and we have all become experts at de-motivating ourselves that way.
This where positive reinforcement makes everything so much easier: instead of rubbing your nose in your mistake (and it’s only a mistake- not a failure!), how about you praise yourself every time you do something right?: “I had salad today instead of a burger! Yay, me!”; “I made my workout even though I didn’t want to go! Whoo hoo!”; “I said no to Barbara’s cookies at the office! Killing it here!” It might feel a little weird or downright silly at first if you aren’t used to it, but it starts a trend. Instead of cataloguing what you’ve done wrong, you are keeping tabs on your good decisions and– most importantly– you are making yourself feel good about that list! This has the opposite effect of that negative list: if I’ve done so great on all of these situations, I can easily do it on this one! It builds confidence instead of tearing it down. When someone asks “how are you doing on your diet?” you can give specific examples of how well you are doing: “I’m eating tons of healthy veggies and haven’t had a cookie in three weeks!” It makes it easier to say no to temptation because, heck, you’ve been saying no for over a month! Even if there is a mistake, not pointing out your muffin top and rubbing your nose in the one mistake lets you get over it and move on to the next success: “I can say no next time since I’m in the habit of saying no.” And should you make a serious decision to have dessert to celebrate a special occasion, it’s easier to remind yourself “I didn’t give in to temptation because I chose to have the cake.”
Positive reinforcement gives you another reason to make the right choice: not only are you doing something healthy for your body and your weight loss, your celebrating your wins gives you a reason to feel good about yourself– period! Remember my dogs? Praising them for listening when I tell them no or for sitting still in the car encourages them to do it over and over again. They get to go more places because they behave themselves plus they get the big bonus of being the best doggies in the world! When you make the right choices for your health and weight loss, not only do you feel and look better physically, but your confidence gets a big bonus as well: “Score! I killed it today on my diet! Yay, me!” The bonuses add up and are more powerful motivators than rubbing your nose in the screw-ups: who wants constant reminders of our mistakes when we can focus on our growing list of wins? If winning yesterday makes you feel awesome, how hard is it to stay motivated to win again today? Not hard! “I’m on a roll!” vs. “How can I not screw up today?”
Most of us aren’t used to positive reinforcement. All those Negative Nancys and Neds like to poo-poo it as “feel-good fluff.” They give you the unimpressed eye-roll when you congratulate yourself on having the veggies instead of the fries: “like those veggies make a real difference!” However these are the same people who will nag you forever about that candy bar you had on the way home, as if that candy bar is going to add thirty pounds on you! (Knowing you feel good about your choices and your progress also allows you to poo-poo their negative comments.) When you feel good about yourself, it’s easier to make good choices and stay motivated, because you are literally your own cheering section. Instead of working to overcome the obstacles you are creating for yourself, you are giving yourself a leg up on the ladder to success. Whoo hoo! Yay, you!