The Dark Side of Reinforcement
Reinforcement is the action of strengthening or encouraging something. We use it when learning something new, parenting, working and many ways in our daily lives. But it can be ugly if we’re not careful. We often don’t realize what we slowly become in negative ways because of the dark side of reinforcement. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut or struggling with how you feel or where your life is currently at, read on, there will be some very insightful tips.
Every new habit we form is based on some type of reinforcement. We reinforce behaviors that are typically desirable but we can also reinforce behaviors that are bad for us based on the feedback we receive from others.
The idea behind positive reinforcement is rewarding someone for doing something you want them to do.
Think of training a pet. You teach them good behaviors by rewarding them with a treat when they do something you command of them. They eventually learn to stick with this behavior because they were positively reinforced.
The dark side of reinforcement
Here’s where it gets tricky. People don’t often discuss the dark side of reinforcement and how it can shape our beliefs, patterns and behaviors in a negative way.
Unfortunately we all seek external validation in some way. We’re looking for others to notice us and congratulate us for who we are and what we do.
Everyone see’s and shapes their own opinions out of the lens they see through. Think of the feeling art conveys. No two people see a piece of art the same way. They view it based on their own beliefs by how they were shaped.
Whether we realize it or not, we are being reinforced on a daily basis based on our own habits, no matter if they’re good or bad.
When you are being reinforced for something it is perceived as a compliment, which can be detrimental over time if you’re not making the right choices.
Things I’ve been reinforced for
- “You’re so skinny”
- Congrats on several promotions in a career I didn’t love
- RBF “I thought you were a bitch because of the way you look before I even talked to you”
- “You’re just so pretty”
- Too ambitious
In my own personal journey I’ve heard many things from the dark side of reinforcement but above are just a few I regularly hear.
The negative side in all of this is it promotes and encourages you to keep up with beliefs, patterns and practices that aren’t truly your own. Reinforcement, whether good or bad, wires your brain to want to keep doing the things you are encouraged and congratulated for.
What people don’t realize
People ask me how I stay skinny all the time. First, I have a small frame and it’s in my DNA. But I’ve also been through periods of stress and trauma that have made it hard to eat, which has resulted in weight loss.
At one point in my life I lost so much weight that I went to my family doctor in hopes of relieving some stress so I could eat normally again. I.love.food. I love to eat and I do it every two hours. When people reinforce the skinny thing it gets in your head in good ways and bad but they often don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.
The dark side of your career
In my career I was receiving promotions left and right and constantly congratulated for them. I was making more money every year to year and a half and constantly finding ways to outdo myself in jobs I didn’t love.
I’m a super ambitious person, which has also led to making decisions to accept promotions even when I didn’t want them and knew they would make me unhappy in the end.
When others would reinforce the congratulations or want to be mentored by me so they could start shaping their own careers I was completely flattered but also felt the negative pull because I knew it wasn’t the career I wanted.
Having that reinforcement was perceived as positive, which made me want to keep practicing those same behaviors but in the end pushed my real dreams further out.
External validation vs internal
To avoid the dark side of reinforcement we must constantly look internally. External validation is like a drug, constantly tempting us to seek more. Internal validation is nourishment for our minds and bodies, which fuels our soul and purpose.
The next time you external validation, question whether it is leading to the dark side of reinforcement or the bright side.
If you’re struggling with the dark side of reinforcement it’s human and it’s ok. It happens every day but it’s not actually the reinforcement itself, it’s how we react to it.
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