Trying to Get Out of the “Reward” Mentality

Sunni's picture

Not just food treats, either. It’s proving to be more of a challenge than I anticipated.

Our culture seems to rely very heavily on rewards and the promise of same to get others to do certain things. “Eat your vegetables and you can have some dessert” is probably one of the oldest bribes around; and I’d wager that many adults use a similar version of it on themselves. “I really killed it at Crossfit today, so I can enjoy a brownie tonight”; “It’s been five days since I’ve had any sugar; I can reward myself with a bit of a splurge over the weekend”; and so it goes. Why do we so often choose to treat ourselves with things that undermine our self-improvement efforts?

I am sadly the same way with money. My income is highly variable from month to month, so I’m always watching my spending to make sure all the necessities are covered and that the snolfs have full tummies and clothes that fit (since both are growing like weeds at the moment, this is no small task)—but what’s the first thing I want to do when I turn the calendar over and still have a generous amount in my bank account? Yep, I want to buy something... yarn, an interesting book or seven, something for the house. Most often I successfully resist the urge, but it’s rather dismaying to have the urge in the first place.

I don’t even want to consider the number of times my one-time “reward” turned into an ongoing session of indulgence as my self-discipline evaporated.

Why do we seem to need rewards so much? Why can’t I just be happy with having a great class in the dojo, or completing thirty days without eggs to see if I’m sensitive to them (I don’t appear to be)? I understand being good to oneself and treating oneself with kindness, but I can’t argue in good conscience that choosing to do something that is counter to my long-term goals and interests is truly kind or good.

Probably worst of all: how can I be aware of this dynamic at play in life, yet still give in to the false allure of a treat as often as I do?

It is a start

Probably worst of all: how can I be aware of this dynamic at play in life, yet still give in to the false allure of a treat as often as I do?

This is actually a good start. being aware of a problem is the first step towards fixing it. I still have the "reward problem", as you put it, but in far fewer areas than I did. One step at a time, you will get there.

What has worked for me in many areas is to change the reward. The problem with this is I don't really know how I made the changes.

Come to think of it...

I thought about this for a while and realize that I don't do this reward thing. I know I used to, but have not for a long time now - with no memory of when the transition actually was made. I think part of it is that I stopped trying to live up to someone else's expectations.

I do whatever I want, whenever I want, and my only real criteria is whether it is going to harm someone else, and if I can actually afford it - either in money or time. I don't have to satisfy anyone else or justify anything to others, so there is no conflict. Sure, I make mistakes at times and wish I'd chosen otherwise, but that's a whole different thing.

I think I don't have any need to "reward" myself because I have no false guilt for anything I do.

What you’re describing seems different

I don’t reward myself as part of living up to others or out of comparison with them, but simply because I want to pat myself on the back for having done something well. Why isn’t the “doing something well” or achieving an accomplishment a sufficient reward in its own right?

Jorge, if you come up with some way to articulate your process, I’m interested in whatever you’re comfortable putting down here. I do think you’re right: awareness is a crucial first step.

That's possible

As far as I remember, the reward thing was always tied to the expectations of others. These days, if I'm happy and satisfied with my work and interactions with others, that's all I need.

The idea of a reward, to me, indicates some sort of competition. which is why I see it in the context of outside expectations. I'm not in any contest with myself - though I do recognize that this is a common strategy.

Some people are simply more goal oriented too. I tend to just take things as they come, and challenges are simply rough spots in the road. I spent a lot of time, effort and emotional energy striving for one goal or another over a long career - and now I'm more or less happy to coast, just doing those things I really want to do and nuts to the rest of it.

Doesn't work for everyone, of course. :)

Different

My version of self-reward is the same as Sunni's. It has nothing to do with the desires or expectations of others. It is much more of "I've done X, therefore deserve Y, therefore am going to give myself Y".

Sunni, I think you see the problem in "therefore deserve..." You feel "I've done X" should be enough.

The problem I see is the other part you described, when Y is something you cannot afford, but you get it anyway.

My solution (only partially successful so far) has been to make Y something I can afford.

As I said I really do not know how it happened, but I have managed to substitute rewards. Here is one example:

Before, after finishing all the work that had to be done around the property I would sit down to a meal that contained food that is not good for me and that I have been trying to get out of my diet for a long time. The rationalization was "I just did a lot of physical work, so it is OK to eat [junk of the day]".

What I do now is list everything I intend to accomplish on the whiteboard before I start, either the evening before, or in the morning. No matter how trivial or routine. As I go past the board in the course of the day I erase what has been done. At the end of the day, I look at an empty (or almost empty) board and have a great deal of satisfaction. I do not need to treat myself to anything else, the empty board has become the reward.

I have no idea how this mental switch occurred, but I have done this same thing in other areas as well. The reward has become something completely different and more importantly, something benign.

BTW, this is not to say I do not eat the occasional non-paleo food, but it is much rarer now and has nothing to do with reward.

Maybe it doesn't start with

Maybe it doesn't start with accomplishment therefore reward, but desire for the actual reward, whether food or some book or acticle of clothing generally deemed unnecessary, that the accomplishment becomes a rationalization for. If you simply desire some reward a la recognition, then the accomplishment itself or acknowledgement of the accomplishment is enough without that material reward.

I think.

PoS

Murphy's Bye-Laws

Hmmmmm

Maybe it doesn’t start with accomplishment therefore reward, but desire for the actual reward, whether food or some book or acticle of clothing generally deemed unnecessary, that the accomplishment becomes a rationalization for.

My usual thought process is something like this: “Hey, I just made it through two back-to-back karate classes! I deserve a treat for that. What should it be?”

Maybe I think a reward will help sustain the positive feelings of the accomplishment—but all too often, I’ll start feeling bad and self-critical, because the reward I chose “undoes” some aspect of the accomplishment I’m supposedly celebrating.

A Solution?

My usual thought process is something like this: “Hey, I just made it through two back-to-back karate classes! I deserve a treat for that. What should it be?”

Perhaps the solution is to select a reward upfront, before the activity. Define the goal and the treat before undertaking the activity.

My solution...

Perhaps the solution is to select a reward upfront, before the activity.

If I were okay with rewarding myself, then that would be fine—but I’m not. After thinking about this and related issues pretty intensely over the last few days, I think I understand myself and my motivation better; so I think I will be able to be content with an accomplishment itself rather than giving myself a treat from now on.

Well, mostly.