A strategy shift

Chastise yourself much? Scold yourself for not doing the right/healthy/calm thing, hoping to move yourself into good behavior? This thinking runs through my head at times: “What were you thinking? You know better!” As a culture, we have a too-ready acceptance of this process, i.e. that the best way to bring misbehavior in line is through correction and scolding, especially when applied to ourselves versus children. It’s a time-honored tradition, as this quote suggests:

Some are kissing mothers and some are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same, and most mothers kiss and scold together.——-Pearl S. Buck

Recent research looked at the effectiveness of this type of negative thinking in motivating behavior. Participants were instructed to focus on one of two options when facing a decision about eating a piece of chocolate cake. The first group focused on how badly they would feel if they broke their diets and ate the cake, while another group zeroed in on how virtuous they would feel if they resisted temptation. The study participants who connected with pride over making the healthy choice actually could resist the unhealthy food choice, while those who scolded themselves dove right in. Perhaps the scolding made them feel badly, ramping up the craving for comfort food?

This seems like another case of adults adopting a strategy that we would not practice with children. We know to correct gently and focus on what children have achieved, rather than rant about mistakes.

(Though we’ve swung the pendulum perhaps too far with children, fearing scolding will warp their little psyches. I’m not advocating harsh treatment of children by any means. But I am reminded of a story from my family’s early parenting days. My toddler daughter scribbled a picture; Dad oohed and aahed. So she scribbled another one. He oohed and aahed again. This went on for twenty minutes, as the drawings regressed to just a pink line of crayon across a whole sheet of paper. Daughter was clearly testing out the fatherly admiration society, not producing art for her own sake. )

Let’s apply these rules about shaping behavior in our own heads. Next time you need to motivate yourself, focus on how you will feel better with triumph, rather than selecting shame as the motivator. I’d love to hear how this works for you.

No one was ever scolded out of their sins. ——William Cowper

2 thoughts on “A strategy shift

  1. Vivienne McNeny says:

    Ann, this is so true! I am not a scolder. I focus on the pride connection and resist temptation the same way I motivate myself to work out everyday, by remembering how wonderfully virtuous I’ll feel in just one short hour. My family write my bull headed determinism off as British stoicism.
    Here is one example of how it works.
    There was a time in my life when I decided to curb my intake of wine (?!). I found if I did not buy wine and consequently did not have any in the house my craving became greater and greater until I simply had to take a ride up to the store and get myself a bottle. Once I had the wine in the house I would take a long hard look at the bottle and decide, “you’ll keep until the weekend!” And put it away on a top shelf. Knowing it was there to be had at any time helped control my craving; furthermore the discipline I exercised by ignoring the temptation to succumb to its liquid wiles made me feel oh so righteous.
    I loved myself to death when I finally gave in and allowed me a glass of the sweet nectar!
    Without a doubt resisting temptation is a far, far, sweeter admonisher for me than scolding!

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