Keep Yourself in Check: How Insecurity is Fueled by Over-apology

256px-waldburg_schandmaske

In my essay on Signs of Insecurity, I wrote the following, here paraphrased:

The self-doubting person tends to apologize when no apology is necessary. It is as if she expects to be reproached or is afraid to give offense; so, she prophylactically tries to excuse any possible mistake to avoid such a response.

Equally, answering a question with an upward inflection of the voice betrays uncertainty. The name given to the practice is “upspeak.”

The problem with these behaviors is that they telegraph vulnerability to those who would take advantage of you. Bullies are good at “reading” your actions if you begin waving a white flag. Otherwise they aren’t that smart.

Social interactions can be a kind of test, true enough. Even when not intended, lots of questions about you are being tentatively answered by the ones who care to pay attention, though not everyone does so until we give them reason to.

Among those questions:

  • Is he intelligent?
  • Does she like me?
  • Do we share interests?
  • Am I making a proper impression?
  • Is this individual naïve or street smart — too trusting for his own good?
  • And only sometimes: can I take advantage of him or her?

Note the presence of questions your conversation partner is asking about himself, as well.

The last two of the items listed are the ones offering a narcissist, a bully, or a sociopath the opportunity to bend you to his will. Most of us don’t wish to be thought of as pushovers in any sense. The gaze of someone strong-willed can make the insecure cower — turn the belly to jelly. He is defeated already. Fearing the unproven strength of the other, a fetal position is taken, as if to say, “Please don’t hurt me! I surrender. I won’t resist.” Now he has you. The “kick-me” sign on your bottom is evident, if invisible.

We all set our own price, put a sticker on ourselves that says, “Here is what I am worth.” Everyone is afraid of something, perhaps many things, but advertising the cheapness of your purchase price — in the hope of an unmade promise of safety — is not advisable. Your self-offering as a sacrificial lamb comes without a guarantee except the one you give.

The assumption is that if we apologize in advance — for who we think we are, for less than perfect language, or lack of knowledge — then criticism, being yelled at, or challenged will be avoided. Wrong.

First, you are overestimating the chances of severe reproof. Second, by admitting your flaws unasked, you state, in effect, “Keep on the lookout for my foolishness, ignorance, and weakness.” Without this — trust me — most won’t recognize any such inadequacies, imagined or real.

While we are being evaluated —if we are being evaluated — the judges are looking for big signs, not small ones: the kinds of markers you can’t miss even at a  distance, like the huge letters on Trump Tower in Chicago. Regular people don’t use instant replay. They aren’t equipped with a slow-motion, zoom-in button, at least not yet. The person facing you cannot recognize a bit of perspiration or hear a slight tremulousness. When you identify yourself as insecure, however, he doesn’t need an interpreter with a PhD. in clinical psychology. You have told him straight out. You may as well raise your hand or request a spotlight. You gave away your power for pocket-money. To paraphrase Emerson, instead of saying, “I am,” you are saying, “I am not.”

In the title to this essay I suggested an alternative, a way to avoid quick psychological exposure. It is both simple and difficult. One needn’t possess heroic self-confidence to do what I’m about to advise.

You must be quiet.

Don’t kneel and you won’t need to get off the floor.

Practice (in your head) stuffing the viperous, reflexive, unrequested apology when the serpent tries to escape your throat. The creature can be tamed. The more you do it, the better you get. Before too long people will forget all or much of what you previously revealed to them about your insecurity. Break the routine. Especially among those who don’t know you, more respect will be offered.

Did I hear you say, “I can’t”? Ask yourself whether your strategy of anticipatory self-criticism is working. “Maybe I’d be treated worse if I didn’t apologize.” Ah, but if your method is a good one, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you? The failure of my simple solution might, however, suggest therapy is needed.

Bottom line: don’t invite others to disrespect you by telling them you disrespect yourself.

The photo at the top is a Schademask or Shame Mask. This one comes from Burg Waldburg, Germany. Wearing such masks was a community-instituted punishment once upon a time. The photographer is Andreas Praefeke and the image is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Shopping for Confidence

512px-Trashy_Smart_Bag

I found myself in a sketchy part of town, although the people were handsomely dressed. No idea how I arrived. The unsavory, but well-groomed types walking the streets triggered my instinct for self-protection. I stepped into a store of a strange kind. Indeed, all the other businesses were full of commodities and people, but felt empty. This one was empty, yet the atmosphere was different.

“Ah, you found us!” said the middle-aged manager, looking pleased. “You seem troubled, but you needn’t be.”

“I was only trying to escape the — uh — neighborhood, if you get what I mean,” I responded hesitantly.

“Oh, they never come in here. We don’t sell what they want. They all want stuff. Everybody wants stuff. Fools.”

“What do you offer?” I replied. I’d not even looked at the sign in the window before I entered, and there was nothing inside to give away the nature of the store’s wares. No shelves, no showcases; plain powder blue walls, unadorned; furniture consisting of a chair, a table, and a sofa. Oh, yes, there was a large book on the table: The Discourses, by Epictetus.

“I sell confidence and I can tell you need some, young man.” Indeed, I was a naïve 20-year old. How did I become twenty again?

The manager had enough self-assurance for a small army. He stood as straight as a military officer at attention, with a bit of gray in his wavy hair, and the square jaw of a GQ model.

“Confidence? How can you tell I need such a thing?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? The doors don’t open unless you require our help. We had special sensors installed. Cost us a fortune.”

I decided not to ask about the technicalities. He was right of course. I did need fistfuls of bravado. I was doubtful about my future, had no clear idea what being a psychologist might entail, and was uncertain with the ladies. My mother was always reminding me I lacked the good-natured qualities of my younger brothers and my buddies. I offered no rejoinder to her comments about Ed and Jack, but when she brought up my friends I’d reply, “Yeah, easy for them: they don’t live with you.”

“OK,” said the manager. “What kind of confidence would you like?”

“You offer different kinds?”

“Yes. For example, you might enjoy some slightly used self-assurance, only utilized by a little old widow at church on Sundays. We can let you have it for a song. Can you sing?”

“No.”

“Well, then. We market a babe magnet variety which we call BMBM makes you appear taller and better looking. This is our best seller. Or perhaps you’d like political confidence. You know, the kind statesmen use to send young men into ill-conceived wars. Actually, we’re not supposed to sell the product any more because it got a bad name during the first George W. Bush administration. For you, though, I’ll make an exception.”

“How about some general confidence. Something all-purpose, to help me say no, stand up for myself, worry less, make phone calls, give speeches, not care about what people think of me. What do you say?

“Oh, that’s very expensive. Too pricey for you, for sure.”

“How much?”

“Well, first off, you must understand what we are selling. We offer only the appearance of things. So, you’ll still be troubled by uncertainty and anxiety, but nobody will recognize what you are feeling. We call the package fake it to make it confidence.

“What would the real thing cost?”

“Years of your time. You’d have to fail a lot. A lot. Over and over, until you succeed. Courage, too, which we can’t give you. The law doesn’t permit us to sell strength of character. Taking on new things would be required of you. Truth telling is necessary — not trying to fool people. Repressing fake smiles is one of the hardest tasks, along with looking into the eyes of those you talk to. So is recognizing that others are much more preoccupied with their own lives than they are with yours. Maybe the most awful thing of all is realizing you don’t matter in the big picture. People don’t want to think someday they’ll die, leaving ‘not a rack behind,’ as Bill Shakespeare used to remind me. Like I said, though, we don’t sell what you’re looking for.”

“I understand. But are you suggesting if I did all the things you enumerated, took risks, got shot down, perhaps found a cognitive-behavior therapist, fell and picked myself up, looked hard into the mirror, and recognized the shortness of life — if I did all those things, I’d eventually find real confidence — perfect confidence?”

Now, for the first time, the manager frowned. Indeed, he no longer resembled the man I thought he was, a stud-meister of complete self-possession. After another moment’s silence, he spoke.

“Oh, no. Gee. Perfect confidence, what a novel idea. I never considered the possibility. But, no, even after all the labor I mentioned, you can’t attain such a lofty state.”

“Why?”

“Simple. Nothing in life is perfect.”

The top photo is a shopping bag made from recycled materials by Trashy Bags, in Accra, Ghana and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. And, a tip of the hat to Rosaliene Bacchus, a much devoted protector of the environment: https://rosalienebacchus.wordpress.com/

 

 

Three Words Therapists Do Not Speak: Strength of Will

512px-RIAN_archive_497570_Weight_lifter_Sultan_Rakhmanov

Imagine a game in which you alone determine when play begins and ends. Although not an easy contest, you get to set the goals and mark the finish line. You can interrupt the match whenever you want and restart later if you wish. The game may last a long time or a short time, but you are assisted by another player who will help your cause.

Now guess the name of the game.

Psychotherapy.

As I’ve described it — and I hope you agree — there is no opponent other than the one you face daily in the mirror. Then why is “the talking cure” so hard?

Lack of willpower is one of the reasons. And, ironically, strength of will (or rather, its absence) is the one least discussed with patients.

Counselors don’t talk to clients about will because doing so sounds critical and blaming, as well as being unhelpful. Examples? “You need courage. You must push through.” Or, worse yet, “man up.” In practice, that means tolerating the emotional pain of facing yourself and uncovering difficult truths about yourself; spade in hand, excavating excruciating memories you’ve dismissed or buried. It presents one of the greatest challenges any of us ever face: change.

Therapists are also hesitant to admit their own lack of all the tools to heal. Yet, we are helpless without your motivation, persistence, and courage. If you dodge self-revelation, keep your barriers high, are unwilling or unable to try new things, don’t show up faithfully to appointments, fail to give negative feedback when necessary, don’t bother to do therapeutic homework between sessions or think carefully about what happened in the meeting — well then, the doc’s job is hard if not impossible.

Sports metaphors come to mind: “the team that wants victory more will win.” Or, “we must give everything we’ve got.” Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi encouraged his players by saying, “Winning isn’t everything. The will to win is the only thing.”*

Even military examples apply. In criticizing a recent failure of the Iraqi forces against the Islāmic State (ISIS or ISIL), US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, the Iraqis had “no will to fight” despite vastly outnumbering the enemy.

A psychiatric mentor of mine called the presence of this will, “therapeutic integrity.” With those two words he was referring to people who stop at almost nothing to improve their lives, sometimes leading the treatment by their own self-exploration and risk taking — demonstrating tenacity and quiet determination. This is not a question of fear, but rather of heroic triumph over fear. Indeed, some wonderful models of this characteristic don’t even realize they exhibit anything special.

An example: a middle class, middle-aged woman suffered sexual and physical abuse in childhood, and was much criticized as an adult — to the point of becoming the family scapegoat. Psychiatrically hospitalized, the exposure of painful repressed memories of her abuse contributed to a brief catatonic state in which she was mute. After a long process of treatment she went from terrible guilt and depression to recognizing and grieving what had been done to her by those she loved. Eventually, this person (who had been fearful of noises and male strangers) wound up providing humanitarian aid in Africa in the midst of a civil war.

She had therapeutic integrity. Heaps of it.

512px-Weight_lifting_black_and_white

This doesn’t mean the lady didn’t falter or struggle. It doesn’t mean she had no issues with her therapist (me) or an easy time when I went on vacation. It means she “hung in” until she was where she wanted to be. I don’t know whether my client was gifted with resilience due to her genetic makeup. On first encounter her voice was quiet, her body language suggested timidity, her eyes downcast. She was bolstered by a powerful religious faith, but did express temporary doubts about a superior being who would permit what happened to her. Somehow she found strength in herself beyond a therapist’s ability to create.

Not every patient must possess great amounts of intestinal fortitude. Not every person’s durability is stretched to the limit by the arduous road bringing him to treatment and by the therapy itself. Sometimes, however, the presence of “will” is the difference between success and failure of the heroic assault against psychopathological demons.

I don’t blame those who can’t find this quality. Sometimes the therapist is at fault for lacking skill. I think it another one of life’s inequities that resilience is not evenly distributed. I tried to enable everyone in my practice to find this ability.

Many times the resilience seemed to take forever to retrieve. I looked hard for the tiniest of eggs fertilized by a therapeutic spark. No matter how small the egg, with progress the zygote of willpower grew. On other occasions dedication in the face of terrible odds wasn’t anywhere to be found.

In the consulting room, alone with the therapist, you are pitted against yourself. No enemy is fighting you but what is inside, the echoes of past defeats, the injuries still fettering you. I won’t criticize you if the steam roller of the world flattened you and left you unable to get up. I only know I never succeeded in lifting anyone who didn’t (at least in some small part of himself) want to be lifted or who required me to do the heaviest part of the lifting.

Norman Cousins said, “Free will and determinism are like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism. The way you play your hand is free will.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: ”They can conquer who believe they can. He has not learned the first lesson in life who does not every day surmount a fear.”**

The game is over only when you say so. That is as much control as any of us get.

*Actually, there is some argument whether Lombardi wished to say precisely this or something close: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

**The italics are mine.

The top photo is of Sultan Rakhmanov in a 1980 weight lifting competition. It is the work of Vitaliy Saveliev. The second photo is called Weight Lifting: Black and White by imagesbywestfall. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Be Bold! Dating Advice For Insecure Young Men

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a2/Be_Bold_coffee_mug.jpg/256px-Be_Bold_coffee_mug.jpg

“What does she see in him?” Both men and women ask this question when they see a man of unremarkable appearance with a strikingly attractive woman. Sometimes the quality is money, sometimes status, sometimes a good sense of humor.  Perhaps it is great charm, a good heart, or a rare temperamental match. The explanation can be found in a resemblance to a father or mother figure, as well. But what is often unseen is perhaps more important than any of these qualities: boldness.

A man who has confidence and acts boldly will find a companion, period. He may be a boor or a clod; he may be self-involved, dishonest, or have poor personal hygiene. Unfortunately, there will be some companionable soul who responds well to his strength, confidence, and persistence despite all these negatives. A young man should not let this person’s coarseness obscure the fact that such brutes still have something to teach him: prospective mates will admire your willingness to take the lead, to act, and to attack problems in a seemingly fearless display of self-assertion.

Scientists suggest that a tendency for women to be attracted to strong men is the evolutionary product of prehistoric life, when a woman needed a male’s protection and ability to carve out a living, especially when the female was pregnant or the children were small. That didn’t make such men “nice,” but it did make them essential. The good news in 2012 is that you needn’t and shouldn’t be some version of a caveman in order to find a way to a woman’s heart; and that women can do quite well without a man.

Even today, however, the boldest men are the types who keep knocking on a door until the door sunders under the assault; or display the cleverness to find another path to their goal when the door fails to give way. They can be admirable in their ingenuity, less so in their bullheadedness. Not every woman will appreciate those who behave as if they were cartoon caricatures of a “macho-man”, but a few will succumb to them. They might not be well-liked, but their relentlessness, their strength of will, their “not to be denied” single-mindedness doesn’t require a standing ovation. And that indifference to the admiration of others is by itself a quality that produces a quantity of admiration, at least from a few potential companions.

The take-away? Show some persistence. Expect some rejection. The strongest men aren’t impervious to the injury that comes from being set aside, but it doesn’t cause them to abandon hope. Some confident women will be won-over by a man’s constancy and pluck. Others will see it as obtuse — not “getting it” — or  stalker-like. Don’t be a stalker, but do show that you can take a punch without breaking down or running away.

Some men accept that they won’t win all the females they pursue, but take the regrettable attitude that “a woman is like a bus — if you don’t catch this one there will be another one along in 10 minutes.” Callous? Yes. Offensive? I think so. But — and this is the point — it is an approach to dating from which an insecure man can learn, while avoiding what is most reprehensible in these alpha males. To put it another way, don’t treat every lass as if your life would be incomplete without her after knowing her for only two weeks.

To succeed with women one needn’t be like the overconfident souls who are too full of their own self-importance and who too easily objectify women — the men who think that one female is easily replaced by another. Yet the shy, hesitant man should not assume that his many good qualities will be sufficient by themselves. Thoughtfulness, intelligence, the ability to make a good living, and perhaps even good looks can be insufficient without the addition of confidence, decisiveness, authority, and the capacity to take some chances. Lacking these, celibacy is more likely than celebration with a co-ed.

“Faint heart never won fair lady” or so the old saying tells us. A man must craft the hardiness required to take a blow, get up off the floor, and come back for more. His personal sensitivity and fragility can disadvantage him if taken too far, however good may be his heart. Cleverness and decency might not overcome a lack of will — of will power: the quality that makes one person a winner and another a loser, even though the loser might have better ideas and be a finer human being. A man who is too hesitant or expects the woman to make decisions for him risks not finding a mate, while the more decisive man will.

As I have written elsewhere, insecure young men need to ask themselves some questions: do you routinely efface yourself and place yourself at a disadvantage — letting others go first, speak first — reluctant to raise your hand? Do you hesitate to take your turn? Are you extremely self-sacrificing? Insecurity can make you wait and wait until the opportunity before you is behind you. Excessive deference displays little regard for yourself, even if some amount of it is often a sign of good breeding and consideration for others.

Of course, there isn’t (or should not be) shame in being an insecure young man. I dare say, most young men start out as insecure. But if you accept your position as a second-class citizen, shy away from challenges; let other, lesser males get to the front of the dating queue again and again, then at some point you have earned your loneliness. If you think that you must first make more money, get your degree, build your body, learn more about the social graces — all that is fine. Do learn what you can. But you still need the hard experience of actual contact with women; and you will probably have to practice a more assertive stance before you have perfected or achieved all the rest. The strength of your will grows with the use of your will, just as a muscle grows with proper exercise.

Take things (and women) on. Show initiative. Many of the fairer sex are waiting for a man to do this, not wishing to carry a relationship on their shoulders alone. They are probably scarier to you than reality justifies. More than a few lack certainty about what they want in a companion until a man offers a relationship-vision that is acceptable; persuades the female not by florid oratory, but by the radiation of personal strength and conviction.

There is a quality of robustness in this that needn’t and shouldn’t be abusive. Lead and there will be followers. Even better, show that you have strength and find a companion who matches you and with whom you can have a co-equal relationship. Look inside and find your ambition, your courage, your unconquerable determination to master your relationship fears and boost your confidence. Get therapy if that is what will assist you to become the person you wish to be — to get beyond awkwardness and social anxiety.

I am not suggesting that you be a brute. But you must be a man, young man.

For a few instructive personal examples of what I’m talking about that don’t have to do with the pursuit of women, see He Who Hesitates is (Sometimes) Lost.

The above photograph is a Be Bold Wikipedia coffee mug, taken on October 4, 2010 by LiAnna Davis and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Elite Athletes Know (and What They Can Teach the Rest of Us)

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Gilmar_catching_a_ball.jpg

It is easy enough to hold a low opinion of the athlete. Society is prone to stereotype, and the athlete easily becomes a “dumb jock.” He is the one, says commonly accepted “wisdom,” who can only get into college because of his physical talents, who will amount to nothing after his athletic gifts are gone, and who must be managed by an agent without whom he would be lost.

As the old Gershwin song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Let’s start with what it takes to be a successful athlete. There is actually a joke about this, but it pertains to classical music. A young man from out-of-town is walking down the streets of New York. He stops a stranger, presumably a New York native, and asks: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice,” says the New Yorker.

So it is with the athlete. He learns to practice, improve, and practice some more, until he gets it right. Beyond getting it right, to the point of nearly obsessive perfection.

Elite competitors also know that they must prepare the same way that they intend to play. Not just going through the motions, but with the same mindset and physical intensity that they will bring to the game. It is well-known that the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the Jordan era was created, in part, by Michael Jordan’s relentless competitive demands on his teammates in practice. If they could take him on with even a small measure of success, their chances against the rest of the league were quite good.

Have you ever watched an NBA player shoot free throws? He does it identically every time. The number of times he dribbles the ball, the moment when he takes his breath, the time he takes to ready himself, and the way that he shoots the ball are always the same; the product of thousands of repetitions during practice.

This dedication extends to stretching, running, and weight training. A look at the bodies of today’s athletes creates a striking contrast with the physiques of their predecessors 50 years ago. The muscle and strength do not come without great effort and regular training. If you have ever lifted weights or done scheduled aerobic exercise, you have at least some idea of what is required.

Then there is the purely mental part of the game. Having the strength of character not to be intimidated by your opposition. And the concentration to ignore the crowd and stay within oneself, doing what one has prepared to do, not thinking about the last play, but being “in the moment;” not panicking, but reacting instantaneously to the movements of the opposition, your teammates, and the ball.

The athlete, too, must learn quickly and forget quickly.

When he makes an error, as all athletes do, he needs to realize what he has done wrong so as not to do it again. But, before the day is out and before the game is over, he must put his failure out of his mind, relegate that setback to the shadows, and prepare for whatever comes next: the next play, the next contest, the next turning point. To keep thinking about the shortfall will undermine his confidence and reduce his capacity to function at his best when the same situation arises again.

Imagine a relief pitcher in baseball as he enters today’s game — the “closer” who is expected to end the enemy’s rally and hold the lead in the contest — thinking about how he lost the game for his team the day before. If he does that, he will let himself and his team down once again.

The performers’ focus must be extraordinary. Indeed, when they are “in the zone,” they have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness that they were in a stadium full of observers.

Moreover, in the world of “biggest-strongest-fastest,” one cannot allow oneself to become too high or too low. The best athletes are characterized by emotional control, so that they permit only brief enthusiasms and try to limit any tendency toward dejection. Opening themselves to the more routine vacillation of mood known to most of the rest of us can undermine their ability to perform. You cannot easily, for example, hit a baseball well if you are too excited, or too “down.”

Diet also comes into play, especially in activities like body building, where what you put into your body affects your ability to build muscle and highlight the definition of those muscles so as to make them stand out. For a serious body builder who avoids banned substances, the severity of his weight training is matched by his ability to eat differently than all the rest of us do. He stays away from foods that will compromise the development of his physique and its appearance.

My brother Jack, an amateur body builder who has won numerous competitive awards in his age bracket, tells me that his training routine typically includes five days per week of work with weights for 1.25 hours per day. His low fat-high protein diet requires that 50% of his calories come from protein, 30% from carbohydrates, and 20% from fats. He drinks a gallon of water a day. Within 10 weeks of his competition, he ups his protein to 60% and lowers carbohydrate sources to 20%.

Actual meal choices are restricted to the following:

  • protein: fish, lean red meat, chicken breast, turkey breast, cottage cheese
  • fats: flaxseed oil, olive oil, fats from lean meats/foods
  • carbs: sweet potatoes, grapefruit, white rice, oatmeal
  • vegetables: lettuce, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans

Clearly, extraordinary discipline is involved.

In addition, elite competitors ignore minor injuries, and sometimes ones not so minor; they must be played through for the good of the team. No wonder that the “athlete’s creed,” involves “rubbing some dirt on (the wound) and getting back into the game.”

The champion hungers for formidable competition. He does not want the contest to be too easy, a challenger who does not test his skills. For him, the point is to be the best among the best, not a big fish in a small pond.

Philosophers of antiquity used the jock as an example of what other philosophers and their students should strive for. They cited the man of physical culture for his excellence, observed him striving to improve himself, and advised the rest of us to perfect the skills of the mind just as the athlete seeks to perfect the body. With respect to the challenges of living, they exhorted the novice philosopher to behave like the wrestler who, when thrown to the mat, gets up instead of giving up, and returns to the battle.

Apart from the possibility of celebrity and fantastic wealth, the athlete profits from the confidence that he has earned by his attitude and effort. He thrives on the exhilaration of a body that responds to his wishes, is finely and precisely tuned and honed, and is not an encumbrance but a tool to achieve his goals.

He is in fact, a model for excellence in living.

No wonder that the rest of us can’t help but watch him.

The top image — Gilmar Catching a Ball — comes from the 1958 World Cup Final. Source: Scanpix (svt.se) (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons.

The bottom image is of Jack Stein.

What Children Need From Parents III: Beware the Extinction Burst!

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1d/Albino_Rat.jpg

Popular culture gives us just enough information to be confused.

Not surprisingly, many parents who have never taken a psychology course know it is important to set limits on their children and to be consistent in enforcing those limits. Despite this, a good many parents don’t have the strength of will to withstand the repeated pleading of their kids, or the energy to do so.

If your child wants you to buy him a candy bar or a toy while you are in the store, many parents believe it is simply easier to give in than to listen to the endless entreaties of their offspring.

In some cases it can be too exhausting or overwhelming to have to deal with a persistent child, in other instances the parent might fear losing the child’s affection if the desired treat isn’t forthcoming, and in still other situations the parent feels guilty if he or she deprives the youngster of something.

For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I always tell parents before they intend to change their style from one that inconsistently reinforces their child’s misbehavior, they have to be strong enough and knowledgeable enough to be prepared for what comes next.

And what comes next is something pretty powerful.

Its called an “extinction burst.”

First, what is “extinction?” Extinction occurs when a behavior that has been previously “reinforced” (some would use the word “rewarded”), no longer receives reinforcement. Eventually, the organism (animal or person) will stop performing the behavior. Put differently, the undesirable behavior is “extinguished.”

Take, for example, a laboratory rat. You can teach these creatures to press a bar in order to get a food pellet. Rats are good at this. But, if you no longer give the rat food pellets for pressing the bar, the critter will eventually stop doing the bar press. But there is a catch here and it relates to the word eventually. And the catch is what is called an “extinction burst.”

Let us assume your child, like the lab rat, has learned something about how you deliver reinforcers. The reinforcer could be the aforementioned candy bar or toy; it could be money; it could be your attention; it could be staying home from school; it could be a lot of things.

And, let’s further assume that you no  longer want the child to keep pestering you for whatever it is that he wants. Now, remember he hasn’t gotten what he wanted every time, but often enough to learn to be persistent and keep at it until you “break” under the assault.

The “extinction burst” consists of the young-one doing even more of the behavior you want to eliminate at the point you stop reinforcing him.

That might mean he will be louder, or pursue you longer, or repeat more often whatever has worked before. It can go on for a very long time until, finally, the child learns the lesson you want to teach him; in other words, learns he will no longer receive what he wants for his inappropriate actions.

But if you finally do break down and reinforce the child with what he wants during the “extinction burst,” he will have learned an awful truth: “Well, maybe I just have to do this behavior longer or more or louder in order to get what I want.” Indeed, the child doesn’t even have to be able to think or say this to himself.

Even laboratory rats operate according to the same rules of learning, and no one I know has had a very deep conversation with a rat lately.

At least, not the four-legged kind.

Parents sometimes tell therapists they have tried to be consistent and it failed. In other words, that the science regarding “extinction” and setting limits is inaccurate.

But what has really happened in this kind of case is the parent wasn’t ready to deal with the extinction burst. Their inability to tolerate the “burst” of seemingly relentless pestering or complaining eventually led them to reinforce the child once again for the undesirable behavior; and, in so doing, made it harder to extinguish the behavior than when they started.

Had the mom or dad only be able to stay-the-course and resist the child a bit longer, the “extinction burst” would have ended.

The moral of the story is to prepare yourself before changing your parenting-style in an effort to become more consistent. If you aren’t absolutely sure you have the organization, energy, strength, patience, and self-confidence to withstand the “extinction burst,” don’t even try. You will only make things worse.

And don’t expect your child to really believe you when you say “this is the last time I will let you do this” while you once again reinforce troublesome behavior.

Talk is cheap and, like those same lab rats who can’t understand your language, your child will pay attention to what you do and not what you say.

But, if you do have the requisite qualities that any good parent needs and you are fully prepared to hold your ground with your child, you might be quite pleased at how you have reasserted yourself and gotten control over the home situation.

To do that, the earlier you start in your child’s life, the better.

You may be interested in the following post on the topic of consistency: What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines.

The photo of an Albino Rat was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Slot_machine.jpg/500px-Slot_machine.jpg

Do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

It’s not a silly question.

The two machines are rather alike. Both require you to insert some money. Both then demand that you engage the machine, set it in motion. In the case of the candy machine, you press a button or pull a lever to make your choice. The slot machine waits for your follow-through on its lever or “arm,” hence the name, “one-armed bandit.”

That is where the similarity ends and the answer to the question becomes essential: do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

The reason is as simple as it is important. The candy machine is dependable, reliable, and consistent. Every time you insert your coins and make  the selection, it provides you with the item you have chosen. If, by chance, it should not, you would quickly stop inserting coins because your knowledge and experience tell you that no matter how many more coins you deposit, the machine will not do what you want. It is broken.

The slot machine, however,  is another story. Your knowledge and experience tell you that the machine’s failure to provide you with winnings on one occasion doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be a winner the next time, or the time after that. It might take you a very long period of failure and much expenditure of hard-earned silver dollars before you would come to the conclusion that the machine is broken. The machine, when its working correctly delivers winnings on an intermittent (or inconsistent) reinforcement schedule.

Getting the picture? If your children see you as consistent and reliable (like the candy machine) in responding to their requests and their pleadings, they will know that asking for what they want more than once will do them no good: the answer will be the same on the 10th request as it is on the first. And once they have learned this, they will make very few additional requests of you beyond the first one.

But if they see you as similar to the slot machine, boy are you in trouble! They will keep at you, over and over, because they know that one failure at winning doesn’t mean the game is lost. Perhaps the second try will work, or the fifth, or the fiftieth. They will know you better than you know yourself. Simply put, they will know that they have a good chance of wearing you down so that they can have the toy, the TV show, the attention, or the food they want; they will know that the punishment you are trying to enforce also can be changed, maybe not by pleading their case only once, but by repeated appeals to you. Your goose will be cooked.

Kids, of course, have more energy for this sort of “back and forth” than most parents do, so time is not on your side. And the longer they have experienced your inconsistency, the longer it will take for them to “unlearn” what you have taught them about yourself.

The message is simple. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Do what you say that you will do. It will easier on you and better for your children. But before you get started, be prepared for the “extinction burst.”

What is that, you say? I’ll cover that topic in my next blog.

The above image is a Slot Machine by Jeff Kubina from the milky way galaxy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.