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