Resilience: Beyond Punishment and Reward

Resilience: Beyond Punishment and RewardPersistence. Resilience. What is it that makes some people persist in the face of great difficulties, when others simply give up? What makes some people highly resilient, refusing to give up even after many difficult experiences?

Given how much we tend to demand of ourselves and others, given how much we ask from our lives, it’s worth having a second and third look at what this whole resilience and persistence issue might be about. We just might be able to learn to be more resilient and persistent, if we want! Do you want to be like those steel cables in the picture, strong, resilient, flexible and unbreakable? Do you want to accomplish your immediate goals, and make incremental progress on your loftiest goals? If so, read on.

Resilience Comes from Motivational Clarity

First, let’s get a good, geeky handle on the underlying behavioral theory of what’s happening when we give up on something important to us.

What’s Supporting My Goals? What’s Tearing Them Down?

When we give up on something that’s important to us, we have desisted from a set of behaviors that have not been adequately rewarded, or which actually are being punished; that end-to-the-behavior is what behaviorists call ‘extinction.’ Animals do not appear to have much choice; if their behavior is adequately rewarded, it will persist; if their behavior is adequately punished, or even not rewarded in any way, it will extinguish. Humans however, have a major advantage. We can consciously examine our motivation and gain clarity into our motivations. This clarity gives us the potential for much greater control over our behavior than we’d otherwise have.

When we notice we are tending to give up on a goal, or simply avoid working on it, we can ask ourselves two questions: 1.”What is punishing my goal-oriented behavior?” and 2. “What is rewarding my goal-oriented behavior?” These questions sound simple, but they’re not, once you get involved in answering them.

Invisible Barriers

For example, let’s say I want to get in shape, but I am not persistent in my exercise program. I experience an injury, and then I quit. Let’s say it’s been a year and I’m totally out of shape. I’m looking at the possibility of getting back to my exercise regimen, but I have serious doubts. I go to the exercise class once or twice, and now I want to quit more than ever. I’m weak, I’m sore, and I’m angry with myself.

Now, we may THINK that what’s blocking us is that we don’t “really” want to get fit. I highly doubt that is the case for most people in this and similar situations. We DO want to get fit, very much. But we have a series of inner obstacles that are formidable, that are punishing our goal-oriented behaviors before we get a chance to experience any rewards.

What are these inner obstacles? Good question.

1. My belief in the thoughts that “this should be easy,” and the related thought that “I shouldn’t have to go through this psychological Hell just to exercise.” Actually, many people go through psychological Hell to establish a new behavior pattern. What if that were just the PRICE OF THE TICKET into what you’re looking for: a life that includes regular exercise and fitness!

2. My unwillingness to have these, as well as other thoughts (below) and the related feelings of sadness, frustration, anxiety, guilt, shame, etc. But what if those feelings too were part of the PRICE OF THE TICKET in to that fit, exercise-oriented life you are interested in leading? Might you consider being willing to have all those Hellish feelings?

3. My lack of clarity about how truly meaningful that exercise-oriented life might be to me. I am relatively out-of-touch with the future REWARD of living that fitness-oriented life.

 Values Clarification: Unsinkable, Inner Rewards

We become resilient by gaining clarity about the REASONS FOR our goals. When we become overly goal-oriented, we lose touch with the underlying values that led us to choose the goal in the first place.  Ironically, our goals can become self-defeating, because we no longer pursue them primarily out of the original value of the goal, but out of a sense of not wanting to “lose.” We get stuck in a cycle of avoiding punishment. We become numb to the reward that the goal represents, which is contact with the underlying value.

Knowing that we are taking STEPS in our valued DIRECTION or directions is inherently satisfying, inherently rewarding. We cannot feel the impact and be moved by the impact of that reward when we are overly focused on our history of “success” versus “failure,” of punishing experiences related to the goal.  Thoughts about past “failures” punish our present behavior.  We get stuck.

Clarifying our values gets us unstuck.  As part of that process, we learn to keep in mind what we REALLY care about, the values underlying the goals in question.  If we value our health, then every single second we spend engaged in improving our health is satisfying, as long as we don’t obscure that satisfaction by taking the goals too seriously. Values-based living is inherently satisfying. Success is not necessary. Only persistence. And persistence. And persistence. And persistence. And persistence. In the service of our most treasured values.

A Tool for Clarifying Values and Enhancing Resilience

I often recommend people complete the Values Bullseye available from Russ Harris’s website, as a tool to help us clarify our values and steer our lives.  By checking in regularly with our verbalization of what matters most to us, what drives us in various life domains (work, relationships, self-development, hobbies), we can get past the momentary punishments and rewards — punishments like unpleasant thoughts and feelings, transient rewards like the pleasant RELIEF we get from not “going there” and not entering the gym, the classroom, or wherever it is that our values could be lived, where there are, also, some unpleasant thoughts and feelings to face.  We can disregard the momentary, passing punishments and rewards and begin to live more out of what we really, truly WANT, rather than being discouraged too much by what we don’t want. The long-term reward ends up driving our behavior; that’s what I mean by the “value;” even more specifically, it’s our verbalization of the long-term reward, our words to ourselves about how our behavior today relates to what we really, really care about.  “Eyes on the prize” is the watch-phrase.  It’s not what we think and feel that matters. It’s what we choose to DO. And what we choose to do has to do with whether we’re willing to take on the burden of that “ticket in,” those very thoughts and feelings that we wish we didn’t have to deal with when pursuing what we want the most.

Do you get stuck in goal-oriented loops?

Have you tried clarifying your values? What is your experience?

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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