Positive reinforcement is not something I was taught as a child. Chances are, you weren’t either.
The primary way of how I was encouraged to “improve” was usually pointing out what was still missing. On the surface, it made sense. If you want to maximize your child’s outcomes, for example at school — why focus on what she already knows? Ambitious parents and teachers naturally pay attention to the areas where there is still room for improvement.
In my experience of being raised by a mother who wanted me to be the best, this manifested very clearly. When I scored an A- on a test, for example, I would be questioned about where the minus came from. At this point, it felt like the “A” before the minus (95% of the test that I completed flawlessly) wasn’t even relevant.
I am not coming to rant about my upbringing, though. I know my mom always wanted the best for me — just like so many parents and teachers do for the kids they are raising and educating. But there is a profound misunderstanding showing through the common demanding approach.
A misunderstanding about how human mind works.
Dr Irvan Joseph, a performance coach and educator, has one simple rule when comes to raising children in the spirit of self-confidence. It’s a simple one: catch them while they’re good.
“Imagine how we could change the way we parent our kids. Instead of: ‘Get that glass off the counter, what’s wrong with you!’ — if we catch them while they’re good. ‘Great job! Great job; thank you, Alice, for taking your glass off the counter.’
It’s so simple, but we forget about it.”
Positive reinforcement of desired behaviours, states of mind or character traits happens when we feel a sense of reward during or after the said behaviour. When this sense of reward occurs consistently in specific circumstances, our brains get rewired to default to that behaviour when an opportunity arises. The process which enables our brains to get reshaped in such a way — and at any age — is called neuroplasticity.
“Positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened.
Sometimes positive reinforcement occurs quite naturally. For example, when you hold the door open for someone you might receive praise and a thank you. That affirmation serves as positive reinforcement and may make it more likely that you will hold the door open for people again in the future.” — Kendra Cherry at Very Well Mind
The thing is, neuroplasticity can also be self-directed. This happens when you choose to intentionally shape your own mind (and physical brain) in a specific way, to accomplish desired outcomes. It may include positively reinforcing the states of mind and behaviours that you intend to experience more often.
With self-directed neuroplasticity, there is no need for anyone to thank you for holding the door. You yourself know well enough that this is something worthy of repetition — and you are able to reinforce the behaviour with rewarding feelings, induced by your own intention.
I am recently discovering that such an intentional, self-directed positive reinforcement is crucial for my meditation progress. As I continue reading one of the most important books for my growth since a few years, The Mind Illuminated — I conclude that, in order to progress in my practice, it is virtually impossible to do so without positive reinforcement.
That’s because it is virtually impossible to force your mind to do something it doesn’t want to. At my current stage in meditation, I am trying to train my mind to become better at focusing on the breath for prolonged periods of time. But this training cannot happen forcefully. The more I try to push my mind to do something it doesn’t want to, the more it resists.
That’s just another example of the “don’t think about a pink elephant” exercise. Once you say this to somebody, that person will most surely can’t help but think of a pink elephant. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the “ironic processes of mental control.”
Because of these processes, the way of training your mind for new behaviours — such as focusing on the breath — cannot be forceful. Instead, the most useful thing I can do in my meditation right now is reinforcing the desired state when it happens.
One way to do that is by paying attention to the moment when I “wake up” from mind-wandering. The most important thing to do then is to infuse positive feelings into that very moment. Instead of returning my focus to the breath as soon as I catch myself lost in thought, I take a second to appreciate my mind for having returned to the present moment.
I may, for example, smile inwardly and acknowledge that being present with my breath is much more pleasant than drifting away. Only then, I resume “working” on my one-pointed focus.
This approach rewards my brain for displaying the desired behaviour — rather than punishing it for what it didn’t do “right.” And, as with any child, appreciation and recognition are much more productive tools to induce positive change than admonishment.
As the last remark, I would also like to add a word about positive reinforcement versus denial. I think that the popularity of slogans such as “think positive” or “don’t worry be happy” demand a little comment here.
Positive reinforcement doesn’t mean that you pretend unpleasant feelings and undesired states don’t occur. It is not to be confused with forced positivity (I think I’ve said enough about using force on your mind already). The latter happens when you try to deny the downs of life and, as a result, fall into one of the happiness traps Russ Harris talks about in his hit book.
In fact, positive reinforcement and denial are two states that exclude one another. That’s because positive reinforcement can only happen when you learn to recognize both your pleasant and unpleasant, comfortable and uncomfortable states of mind with equanimity. This introspective skill is sometimes also called “acceptance.”
“Acceptance does not mean putting up with or resigning yourself to anything. Acceptance is about embracing life, not merely tolerating it. Acceptance literally means ‘taking what is offered.’” — Russ Harris
Only once you learn how to receive all that life brings, can you use positive reinforcement correctly. Such use implies that you are able to recognize which states, behaviours and mental patterns serve you — and which of them don’t. After making this distinction, you can strengthen and feed the former — and let go of the latter.
This way, you gradually rewire your mind according to your intention, instead of past conditioning. What is important is that you don’t do that forcefully — but with love, patience and positive reinforcement.