There’s nothing that better illustrates the weird, toxic relationship we have to learning and encouraging change than the way we treat our pets.
Stick with me here — about a year ago, I was working at an animal shelter as an adoption counselor. I spent my workdays reading applications from potential adopters, sitting down with them for an interview to make sure it’s a good fit, and educating them on modern best practices for animal care.
While working at the shelter, I encountered a radical concept I’d pretty much never come across before — never ever training with punishment, not even a disapproving, stern “no”.
I’d always been a proponent of positive reinforcement training. I’ve never been one to even consider using prong collars or hitting animals, that’s always been abhorrent to me. But I’d also grown up assuming that you can only stop animals from doing undesired behaviors by telling them that what they did was wrong — that makes sense, right? Your dog chews on your favorite shoes, so you just tell them “no!” or “bad!” when you catch them, and then they’ll stop doing it, right?
As it turns out, the answer is… not really.
Think about it — no “bad” behavior comes from thin air. If your dog is chewing on your shoes, they aren’t attempting to spite you or ruin your morning. Even if your dog stops chewing on your shoes when you punish them, you might start to see other issues popping up: now they chew on your underwear, or claw on your doors, or get into the trash. That’s because you’re not addressing the underlying issue, and you’re not providing an alternative.
Perhaps in this case your dog isn’t getting enough mental stimulation, and they’re trying to meet that need the only way they know how (your brand new Nikes). What are some things you can do to provide that for them instead? If you’re giving them puzzle toys, playing with them, or even training them to do new tricks, you’ll likely see the behavior you don’t like dissipating. Instead of saying “no”, try trading up by taking away your shoes and giving them their chew toy instead. Both parties get their needs met, and your blood pressure doesn’t shoot through the roof.
Dogs who aren’t punished tend to be more eager to learn, less shy, and less reactive towards humans and other dogs. This concept went over well with most people I talked to about it. Why shouldn’t we apply that mindset to our own behavior?
In addition to the time I spent working for the humane society, I have also spent the last 2–3 years working in mental health. Adjacent to the omission of “bad dog!”, I came across another completely new concept during this time: the importance of a synthesis of acceptance and change.
Acceptance seems completely antithetical to change. Traditional wisdom tells us not to be soft on ourselves — change happens through making the alternative unbearable, and the reward comes once the change is complete. What we never seem to take into account is that, at the end of the day, we’re all just dogs chewing on shoes.
Behaviors don’t appear out of nowhere. Everything you do fills a need, and until you learn to meet that need elsewhere, punishing yourself for your undesired behaviors is punishing a part of yourself that is lacking something vital.
Saying “Slap me if I even think about spending all my money on fast food again!” might seem helpful in the moment, but self-flagellation isn’t what’s going to keep you from getting Taco Bell. What it does do is invalidate the part of you who’s exhausted, who worked all day and is about to snap, who is overwhelmed by trying to figure out something to make for dinner and caves for the fourth time this week because settling for a quesarito is easier than sitting with the reality of how difficult everything can be.
Instead of making an intricate chart about how if you’re late to work x amount more times you’re going to take away your own laptop for a week, think about what you’re getting out of being late to work.
“Nothing!” you might say, “I don’t know why I do it!”. Well, what’s making you late? Maybe you’re staying awake longer than usual. Why are you staying up? Maybe you never have any alone time, and the middle of the night is the only time you’re by yourself. Taking away your laptop won’t make you feel less overwhelmed, it’ll only make things worse. Troubleshooting how to get more time to yourself, though, is a different story.
No matter how much it might seem like it, your behaviors aren’t frustrating little goblins that cropped up out of nowhere to make your life hard. You’re just doing what you know how to do with the skills you currently possess. Change won’t come about with a “no!” and a squirt from a spray bottle, it’ll come with plenty of treats, patience, and shaping your behavior around what works instead of what doesn’t.