The past month or so has been pretty rocky for me. The progress I’m so used to making just hasn’t been there. I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of stagnation in pretty much every area of my life. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I can’t string together more than a couple days of productivity before going back to my lazy habits.
Motivational struggles are nothing new to me. Finding the motivation to go after what I truly want in life has always been difficult. I guess that’s part of what makes my current struggles even more frustrating than usual. However, my inability to generate much momentum lately has made me take a step back and really examine this whole situation.
A while back I wrote a post on the benefits I found in living intentionally as opposed to making a bunch of strict goals for myself. One of the main themes behind that post was my own tendency to be very hard on myself when I failed to reach my goals. At the time, I saw clearly that being overly critical of myself usually made me less productive overall.
It seems I’ve forgotten that message since coming back home. I may not have set concrete goals for myself, but I did have a mental picture of all the amazing things I would accomplish this summer. And this picture left little room for the struggles I’m having at the moment.
What has my response beens? Overwhelmingly negative. Every time I miss a day of writing or end up sitting in front of the TV all night, I compound the failure by mentally abusing myself. “What wrong with me?” “Why can’t I be more productive?” “Do I even want to change at all, or am I just lying to myself?” “If I keep this up, I’m definitely going to end up a failure.” This kind of self-talk has been the norm for me for as long as I can remember. Only now have I stopped to consider that it might be doing more harm than good. It’s not just the words themselves though. It’s the mindset behind them; a mindset that expects perfection where perfection is impossible.
If I were to take some perspective on the past month and a half, I might be able to see a different side to the story. I’ve been so focused on everything I’ve done wrong that I’ve failed to see all the things I’ve done right. I’ve stuck to a consistent gym routine and diet. I’ve been meditating fairly consistently. I’ve been working a ton and I’ve managed to save up a considerable amount of my future travels. While I may not be this perfect productivity machine, those are all things that I should be proud of.
Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement
In the little over a year that I’ve worked with kids (as both a recreation leader and an English language assistant), one major lesson has stood out to me: positive reinforcement is infinitely more effective than negative reinforcement. Focusing less on children’s’ negative behavior and more on their positive behavior can lead, not only to better behavior in the future, but also happier, more confident kids.
Does the need for positive reinforcement go away once we reach a certain age? I doubt it. We may need less validation from the people around us in order to feel good, but there is still a strong need for our own validation at the very least. Yet positive reinforcement is often the last thing we are willing to give ourselves.
Maybe it’s because we are the only people who know our true potentials. We can close our eyes and envision all that we can be and all the great things we can accomplish. With this vision in mind, it’s all the more disappointing when we fail to live up to it. So we get mad at ourselves. We criticize ourselves. We even hate ourselves at times.
But would we treat a child that way? Would we lash out at them every time they make a mistake, every time they don’t know how to do something with the ease of an expert? Of course not. Part of the reason it’s easier for us (at times) to be more understanding with children is because we know they are still learning and growing. Of course they are going to make mistakes; they don’t know everything yet.
But as adults, are we really that different than children? Sure we have more responsibilities and we know how to do a few more things, but aren’t we still learning? Aren’t we still trying to figure everything out? Don’t we still feel lost and confused at times? Maybe I’m alone in this, but a lot of times I still feel like a kid in a really tall adult’s body, still as clueless as I ever was.
With this in mind, what I’m really focusing on lately is giving myself the same positive reinforcement that I would give a child. I guess you could say I’m just trying to take care of my inner child. This means celebrating all of the small victories in my life and not beating myself up for my mistakes and failures. It means giving myself room to be completely imperfect. It means reminding myself daily that I’m still learning and growing, and that progress usually doesn’t take the route we expect it to. Most of all, it means showing myself the same love and compassion that I would show anyone else I care about in my life.
This is a lot easier said than done. My ever-present fear is that, by being so understanding with myself, I’ll just end up patting myself on the back for being lazy and never actually accomplish anything. There is clearly a balance that must be maintained between being compassionate with yourself and pushing yourself to take action. Honestly I’m not sure how to find that balance. I have a feeling it will be a lifelong journey of trial and error.