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How To Use Positive Reinforcement for Self-Care

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Self-care is a phrase that by now, we hear on a daily basis. We’re encouraged to practice self-care, to incorporate things into our routines that improve our physical and mental well-beings. But actually, developing and establishing these new routines isn’t always that easy. It’s easy to forget, to skip a day, and then another day, to become distracted and let the routine slip. So how can we find a way to practice self-care in a way that becomes a part of our behaviours, that fits into our daily lives as easy as everything else we do on a daily basis? Positive reinforcement can be a way to encourage yourself to practice a certain behaviour or activity until it becomes normal.

What is positive reinforcement?

According to Positive Psychology, positive reinforcement is ‘the introduction of a desirable or pleasant stimulus after a behaviour. The desirable stimulus reinforces the behaviour, making it more likely that the behaviour will reoccur.’

Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour, i.e. giving a rat a treat after it completes a task, being giving a bonus for doing good work, or simply being told ‘well done’ can strengthen the particular behaviour. Commonly associated with training animals in laboratory conditions, positive reinforcement occurs daily, through simple good actions and words.

Types of reinforcers include:
  • Natural reinforcers (studying for a test and getting a good grade)
  • Token reinforcers (such as being given stickers or points that can be saved up and traded i.e. a child gets five gold stars and then given ice cream)
  • Social reinforcers (usually a verbal expression of approving behaviour)
  • Tangible reinforcers (physical rewards such as money, toys or presents)

Positive reinforcement is a method commonly used by parents to encourage positive behaviours in children such as eating all their broccoli to get pudding, using their manners to get a lolly, or tidying their bedroom to get a toy.

It is also one the most long-term methods of ‘training.’ Associations to the reinforcers last a long time. And it’s probably something we’ve all experienced before. Being told ‘good work’ gives the good feeling and motivation to produce the same again, better this time.

“You have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” – Louise L. Hay

Using positive reinforcement

It seems that using positive reinforcement on yourself, a grown up, might seem a little weird. You don’t need to earn things for yourself. If you want a cake or a coffee, you go right ahead and get one. There’s not really any need to go about things in a controlled way. And yet, it works.

For example, I really like Diet Coke. I like it a lot. I also wanted to start drinking more water. So, once I’ve drunk two pints of water, I get a coke. Sometimes its more than two pints, sometimes it takes me a while, but it works well enough.

Now I know that diet coke isn’t really good for me, and that it probably contradicts the idea of self-care, but it makes me happy, and remember that life is all in the balance, and caring for yourself looks different to everyone.

You can use positive reinforcement as a way to incorporate new steps into your self-care routines, such as:

  • Meditation
  • Journaling (Drink your favourite tea while you write)
  • Counselling or Therapy (I like to but myself a hot chocolate after a counselling session)
  • Yoga

By rewarding yourself for healthy or caring behaviours, you can make them a part of your schedule or routine without really having to think too much about it, making it a part of your behaviour. Self-care is sometimes difficult to pull into practice, to dedicate to against feelings of selfishness or guilt. Normalise the behaviour, associate with its good things and let become an easy thing to slip into your lifestyle.

No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en” – William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

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