The astonishing power of positive reinforcement for personal growth and joy

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Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

The orange light spread over the table, as they sat down. Their food was steaming hot. All four of them grabbed their plate and started to scoop and grab the food that was still in pots and pans. “Enjoy!” His mom said placing the first fork of food in front of her mouth. “Enjoy,” he, his father, and sister said in unison. His sister and he laughed and started to chew on the first bit of food. Delicious oven-roasted potatoes and vegetables, he loved it. Nothing was said afterward. They all were silent. The boy noticed something. He felt as if his dad was about to burst out in anger. He knew why…

He had probably seen his results from the test week. Once every half year in school they had this massive test week in which you had to do about 12 tests, for each subject one. It was horrible because he had to learn 12 different topics at once, most of the time forgetting what he had learned for one subject after starting to learn for the second subject. This time it had turned out quite alright. He smiled at his thoughts. He looked up from his plate and saw that his sister wasn’t feeling comfortable as well. She too felt a sort of weird tension around the table. “I should tell them.” I thought to myself, already feeling my heart rate increase. These were the moments he feared most. Because, well…

“Mom, dad…” he started out-of-nowhere. His voice sounded enthusiastic, yet unsteady indicating that he was experiencing some sort of stress. “I had some great results for my tests!” He was about to start with all the good news and end it with some bad. He knew this would be the best approach. “I had five C’s and 4 C+ oh and 1 B!” He said ecstatic, he felt proud of himself but that feeling didn’t last long. The only response he got from his father was “Oh great” He put his head down again and looked at his plate. He knew that if this was his response to all the good grades he would not be happy hearing that he had two Fs. But he started anyway. “But that bad news is that I did get two F’s for math and English. But I can do those over, you always have…” He tried to squeeze these words in before his dad started his rant. It didn’t work.

“WHAT!” He started, his voice raised, trembling both my mom and sister, as well as the boy himself. The boy lowered his eyes and felt ashamed. Shrugging his head into his shoulders as far as he could, hoping that his dad wouldn’t get too mad. He peaked up and looked at both his mom and sister, they too looked down at their plates. Fiddling around with their food and once in a while eating a bite. “Two F’s? What went wrong?” He asked rhetorically. The boy tried to answer but was roughly interrupted again by his dad. “You should have learned more! Asked for help from your teacher or us.” The boy felt tears welling up in his eyes. He hated it when people got mad at him. Their energy was overwhelming and most of the time he would start to cry. It was just not a healthy place for him to express himself.

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The defense

The boy fumbled around with his words. Trying to defend himself. He felt like he had to. “But… But…” the boy stumbles again, constantly overruled by his father. There just was no real moment for him to speak or explain himself. “But dad!” He shouted. In an instant, he was done. He wanted to explain himself. “Listen, dad, I got two Fs. So what? I still have two retries to get them up into a C or maybe a B. Why are you so mad at me for failing?” The boy said annoyed and with an increasing volume. He too now was angry. “NO, YOU SHOULD LEARN MORE!” His dad started. Now furious because of the tone he had given back to his father. “ALL I SEE YOU DO IS PLAY VIDEO GAMES AND DO NOTHING! WHEN I WAS A KID…” The boy rolled his eyes staring at his plate. This was the same story his father told him over and over again. How he had to learn each day till late in the night. “But I don’t need to!” The boy said. “Yes, you do!” His father replied. “No I don’t” the boy replied. As if they were in a game of yes and no. Both adolescents, yet both childish.

A silence fell for once at the diner table. His mom started to clean up the table and the boy did so too. He got up. No longer wanting to speak about it. He finished cleaning the table. His father didn’t say a word but he knew… He felt it. He knew that he was furious. The boy was thanked by his mom for helping and walked towards the hallway. “WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING!” My dad said slowly, biting his checks trying to keep his tone down. “I am going upstairs” The boy simply replied. “We aren’t done here…” The father said and so the boy turned around and sat down next to him again. Now looking at an empty table.

His father started to speak but the boy’s thoughts wandered away. His sister had thankfully gone upstairs. He hated it when this happened with his sister around. She must have been scared too. “How could he be so ignorant?” The boy thought to himself. This was always the case. Even though the boy had a B or a C there was always something he didn’t do right. He should have gotten that A, learned more, do more, be more precise, write better, see what his test results are, etc. The list went on and on. He was never enough and if he was, there was always a ‘but…”

The boy didn’t hear a word of his father’s rant. He just nodded and said he will learn harder, do more, and change those F’s into B’s. Now his father was proud of him. Hugging him and saying that he was doing a good job. “A bit too late dad…” The boy thought to himself. His head down to the ground. He decided to go for a walk with his dog.

He did what?!?

It was spring and the trees burst out with white and pink flourishing flowers. All kinds of new smells arose from the grounds and the boy and their black wrinkled pup walked down the small peddle road. All the new scents made their dog sniff and smell every inch of ground around the place. No tree, lantern post, flower, or bush was spared by his nose. He was all over the place. The boy was captured in thoughts. Not paying attention to his dog or the beauty that was around him. He did notice that on the other side of the road another dog and his owner walked by. The dog stood still. Not looking at our dog. His tail wiggling joyfully in the fresh evening winds. His owner didn’t glance at anything around him. With firm steps, he walked on. His dog in an instant ran the opposite way and almost pulled the arm of the man out of his socket. Furious and annoyed the man pulled the dog back and then the boy was obliterated with anger and grief…

The owner kicked the dog straight to the body. The dog howled and hopped along with the owner. The boy’s mind froze. So did his dog. They both were shocked by the event and stood there for a minute. The boy didn’t dare speak up to the man and just stared at him as he walked on. A small bark on the right of him pulled him back to the now. It was another dog and its owner. This time a light brown curly-haired dog was joyfully barking to them. His tail wiggled furiously from one side to the other. He was so delighted with joy that the dog took a run for it and the man holding his leash was startled. He stood to steadfast and the boy bounced back as the leash reached the end of its length. The man stayed there. Not saying anything. His left hand reaching into a small pouch on his belt. He held a salmon-colored treat in the shape of a bone in-between his index finger and his tumble. Twiddling it to release its scent into the air. The dog’s legs were straightened all the way and trembled under the force he was putting on them. He wanted to come towards us so badly. But the owner didn’t allow him. The boy looked at the owner of the brown curly-haired dog and he smiled. Seeming relaxed and in control. I didn’t want to make the dog even more excited so I waited there. A few seconds passed and the brown dog couldn’t move an inch forward so it looked back at its owner. His eyes begging to come with him. But then he noticed it…

The treat in the hand of the owner suddenly was the only objective of the dog. He gently walked back keeping his gaze on the bone that twiddled in the man’s hand. The dog came as close as possible and sat down. Still looking at the treat. The owner lowered his hand up to the mouth of the dog. He put it in the palm of his hand the dog gently grabbed it in its mouth. Now the two walked on the dog calm again and the man still smiling. “What a difference” the boy thought to himself. They passed one another and the two dogs sniffed and jumped around. Joyful to see one another again. The boy was impressed and said, “What an amazing way to treat your dog!” “Thank you” the man replied with a small smile on his face not wanting to act cocky. “dogs can only be trained right by positively reinforcing them. Complimenting them when they do it right and letting them understand their own mistakes instead of punishing them for it. It is not only dogs that work that way. We humans do too.” He laughed and walked on wishing the boy and his dog a good day. The boy seemed to notice that the brown dog nodded as if he was trying to say goodbye to their dog. A gentle smile appeared on his face. The brown dog’s head turns around and he tippled along with his owner, shacking his but.

A joy-driven change

The boy stood still for a minute and realized that he was consistently being punished for his behavior of not getting higher grades. Of course, he wasn’t being punished physically, but mentally he was being punished by never being good enough. It was as if he was continuously kicked like the dog he saw on the other side of the road. He was just joyfully sharing his grades and as a result of that he got kicked, because his joy wasn’t in place. He had the opportunity to do more and be better. But the words that the owner of the brown curly dog had just spoke kept replaying in his mind. “It is not only dogs that work that way. We humans do too.” The boy continued his walk and wondered if he could do more if he would positively reinforce himself. He knew his dad would never do it. He couldn’t blame him for it either. But the way his dad was treating him was now being used by himself as well. He started to think the same way, that it was never enough. That his grades should always be better. And even though he agreed that he could always improve, he didn’t think that this approach worked for him. He wanted to improve but out because he wanted to not, not because he feared not being good enough.

He stayed silent for most of the arguments that followed in the weeks and months that followed. Listening to his dad, but not letting the feeling of resentment towards his dad settle in. He was continuously trying to think of the things he did do right and looked at how he could learn from those things. He now knew that this wasn’t about him. It was about his dad wanting the best for him but knowing no other way than to point out what he could do better. The only way his dad knew to reinforce him was by punishing him each time he wasn’t doing enough in his opinion. But it had only caused him to doubt himself instead of building up his self-esteem. He only sought out that which could be improved and never let him make mistakes by himself. He knew that his dad didn’t mean it that way, but he knew that he would not let himself get influenced by him anymore. It was time for him to do what he thought was right. Positively reinforcing himself. He replaced the fear of not being enough with the joy of continuously learning and growing.

Real growth comes from joy, not from fear

It’s a fundamental understanding that we all want to live joyful lives. Most of us want to live out our dreams and that does require us to grow. It’s a beautiful thing to grow, it brings a lot of joy to our lives. I’ve struggled with my mentality around growth. I see a lot of negative reinforcement, through media, parenting, and ourselves. We want to grow and it is a deep desire of all of us. It is part of nature to want to grow. But the way I grew in the past few years has been based on fear. The fear of never being enough. But I realized that growing, healthy growth is never based on fear.

The story of the dogs is a fundamental easy way to understand this. I have realized that punishing our dog is not the way to make him realize that he wasn’t doing the right thing. It was patience and rewarding him for positive behavior that made the difference. To me, a lot has changed since the moment I started positively reinforcing myself. Not basing my decisions on fear any longer. I love growing, so much that it has become an obsession of mine. Always learning and trying to make things just a tiny bit better. But this change only happened when I felt joy doing it.

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5 ways you can positively reinforce yourself to grow

Reward yourself for accomplishments. this is such a game-changer for me. I have started to reward myself each time I have done something. If I have finished another blog post I take the time to mentally reward myself. As well as sometimes buying myself new things I love. Most of the time these are books that can grow my mindset and love for the world even more. But rewarding yourself for the things you accomplish is such an important growth tactic. Even the smallest achievements should be celebrated in small ways. As well as the failures you make.

Be grateful for everything you have done already. I’ve started to keep a gratitude journal each day. Writing down all the things I am thankful for, and each day I try to write down something I did, something I learned or grew in, and be thankful for it. So keeping a gratitude journal and writing down achievements, and things you are grateful for can exponentially improve the joy you feel when learning and growing.

Be proud of yourself. This was the hardest one for me. I always thought that I wasn’t good enough. That I had to do more to be worthy of any achievements, joy, or success. But I learned to be proud of myself. To cherish every new thing I learn, every new thing I achieve, and to now take the time to feel proud of myself. Just a minute or two will do. Just standing, sitting, staring, and feeling the emotions of being proud to go through your body.

Be excited to grow and learn. Another thing was finding the things I was excited about to learn. I have never liked learning about math and that is why I often had bad grades for these subjects. But now I am learning all the things that I love to learn about I started to be excited. Every time I buy a new book I am incredibly excited for it to arrive in the post. Each time I finish a course or have some new insight to learn about I feel excited. Energy rushes through my body. This isn’t that hard to do. Find things that you are excited about to learn. This could be anything, you could learn about dirt if you are excited about it. But excitement and joy are key to growth.

Try to not blame yourself when you fail. Blame is one of those negative reinforcements we constantly harass ourselves with, but that isn’t healthy. Failing is part of the game, we can’t win all the time and we shouldn’t. So I’ve stopped blaming myself. Every time I now fail or could have done something different I grab my gratitude journal or take a moment to be grateful for the lesson I learned from it. That has changed my mindset from still punishing myself for not being good enough in always seeing the beauty of things and consistently growing and learning.

I hope this helped you. I’ve struggled with this so it is completely normal that you struggle with this. If you need any help please send me a message on Instagram or email daan@todayilived.com I would love to help you. Don’t worry I do not ask for any money for this. I want to help you, that’s all. I want to help you live a joyful, meaningful, and peaceful life. All the remind yourself each day that

Today I Lived!

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