Undoing a bad habit – lessons from the big box stores

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Healthy habits background

Healthy habits.

Sometimes trying to break a habit only makes it worse.

If you have a habit that you wish you had never started, gambling, drinking, drug use, overeating, or whatever, and want to change it, take a strategy from the big boy’s playbook.

The major chain retailers all want you in their store. To get you in the door and then make a regular shopper out of you, they have to get you out of their competitor’s store. There are right ways to do this and wrong ways.

These strategies are not about will power or won’t power. They also have little to do with your motivation. In the future, we will talk more about how to motivate yourself and stay motivated. When we talk about that we will look at why it is so easy to motivate yourself to do fun things and so hard to motivate yourself to do disagreeable things. Here is how retailers motivate you.

The ways major retailers get you to switch is a blueprint for changing your behavior.  Here are some things the stores do and how you can use these techniques to end a habit.

1. Do not focus on the behavior you want to stop.

This is where most self-improvement programs go wrong. The more you try to not do something the stronger the urges to do exactly that thing. One retailer does not, if they are smart, run commercials telling you to “don’t shop at brand X.”

Commercials like that only remind you of brand x. Occasionally retailers forget and do this. The result is not more customers in their store, even if they get them out of the competitor’s store. (See the post on “Don’t think about elephants.”)

If you are trying to get rid of a habit like drinking, focusing on not drinking is likely to get you to find another habit to take the drinking’s place. That new habit, like gambling, may be just as undesirable as the old habit.

People in recovery find that just quitting the old habit leaves you miserable. There is a whole body of literature on “dry drunks” people who have quit the drinking but they are still miserable. So what do you do?

2. Create a competing behavior.

Stores try to give you a reason to try them, just once. They use coupons, specials this week only, offers and the like to create a real strong reason for you to come to them this one time.

With undesirable habits, we need to create a new positive habit to replace the old one. This is one reason A.A. or church services are so helpful to recovering people. It creates a new habit to replace the old one.

3. Make sure the new habit is enjoyable.

If the store gets you in the door they should do all they can to make this new experience a positive one. Smart retailers bring in extra help for the sale even if they are selling things at cost.

They want you to get service and get it promptly if they are to have any chance of keeping you as a regular customer. Stores that forget this and make you wait in long lines or treat you rudely end up sending you back to the place you used to shop even if you didn’t really like it there.

If your change effort involves pain and doing without then you are likely to say why bother and head right back to what you used to do. Make this new change behavior enjoyable and the chances that this fun thing will replace the old undesired behavior.

4. Keep coming back.

Stores know that if you switch your shopping pattern and visit a new place three times in a row there is a strong chance you have a new regular place to shop. This is why they use coupons that have expiration dates, offers that allow you so much off or something for free each week or month.

Make a habit of the new behavior and it is likely to persist.

This is why recovery groups will suggest 30 meetings in 30 days or even 90 meetings in 90 days. Anything you do that many times in a row will become your new default behavior. Even if you start missing meetings down the road, the habit of going to meetings instead of drinking is now firmly entrenched.

So if you really want to stop a bad habit take these simple steps. Create a new habit to replace the old one. Make it fun to do. Minimize any negative parts of the new behavior and keep doing it over and over until it is your new default behavior.

Do these steps and you can be a habit shaper just like the big boys.

Related articles

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

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Should I tell my therapist about Porn? Morning Question #21

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Should he tell?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Talk to the counselor about porn?

Why? I would think they already know about it. The better question is – are you or your partner having a problem with porn? If this is something that is causing you problems then yes, by all means, tell the counselor about it.

Another reason to disclose the use of porn is if you and your partner are having relationship problems. Even if one partner does not think the porn is a problem the other partner may. Viewing sexually explicit materials can create a false sense of reality. Internet porn is about pixels, not people. So if one partner in a relationship looks at porn and there are problems, sexual or otherwise, between the two of you, that porn watching activity is very relevant to individual and couples counseling.

Don’t be afraid or ashamed to talk about anything relevant to your problem. If you are having relationship issues of any kind then what you see portrayed as relationships in any media is relevant. If your therapist is unable to talk with you about this or is excessively moralistic or judgmental, then you just might have the wrong therapist for you.  See also Counseling as a novel relationship and posts about What the counselor can and can’t tell. The post about threesomes was written about bringing an addiction into your relationship but it is very relevant about porn or internet addictions also.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Three David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

SasquatchWandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive? The guests had come to Meditation Mountain to find themselves. Trapped in the Menhirs during a sudden desert storm, two guests move through a porthole in time and encounter long extinct monsters. They want to get back to their own time, but the Sasquatch intends to kill them.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

Where happiness hides.

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Happy faces

Happiness.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

How happiness becomes invisible.

Happiness is so much harder to find than pain for the majority of humans. This is not a result of some personal failing. Turns out that this bias, to see the bad and the dangerous and to miss the happy and the pleasant, is a built-in feature, a part of the design of humans.

One particular psychological principle explains a lot about the inability of so many people to see happiness even when it is right in front of you. That principle is the “expert effect.”

Let me explain expert effect and how it hides happiness with a story from my past.

I once had a friend who was into antiques. We decide to meet up for lunch and check out a few antique stores downtown. After walking through one especially well-stocked establishment we paused outside to talk about what we had seen.

“Did you see that Fenton glass? And the shelf of carnival glass over in the corner?” She asked.

I had to admit I hadn’t noticed either of these glass items. They were right there in plain sight.” She commented.  “How could you have missed them?”

I had to admit I had missed them. There was a good reason why. At that point in my life, I could not have told you the difference between a piece of Fenton glass and a fence. I could easily spot the shelves of old books but the glass, not so much.

So after that experience and not wanting to appear so stupid I determined to solve this problem. The next week I went to the library and checked out, and read, some books on antique and collectible glass.  The next time we went antique hunting I did indeed see all sorts of previously invisible collectible glass.

Not only did I see it, but now I slowed down to take a close look and tried to remember what I had read about this particular type of glass. When we did finally talk about what we had seen there was so much more to the conversation.

The principle here is the “expert effect.” If you don’t know what something looks like it is hard to spot. The more you learn about a subject the faster you will identify it and the more meaning it will have when you see it.

Most of us are hard-wired to spot pain but we have never learned to see happiness. This makes the good things in life invisible even when they are right in front of us.

Most of us are naturally able to spot the unhappy, the painful and the dangerous. You don’t need to be eaten by a lion to know that avoiding lions is a good thing to do. We can learn from others by seeing them get eaten. We might even learn from hearing others tell tales about lions eating people. Getting eaten has a high importance if you live around lions. In my town, we avoid gang members with guns in the same way.

It is much harder to spot others who are happy. And we don’t often hear stories about others happy moments. Even when we do see and hear happiness stories they don’t stick in our brains the way lion stories do. This is called a negativity bias.

Rick Hanson author of Buddha Brain, has written and talked about our ability to learn about the negative quickly and our lack of skill in learning to spot and remember happiness. With time our brains can learn most anything but the less you know about the topic the harder it is to learn and the more we will be biased to learning only scary things we need to know to keeps us alive.

So his prescription for learning about happiness? How do you become a happiness expert so you can spot it at a distance and learn to run toward happiness instead of from lions? Hanson suggests that a positive memory needs to be held and savored for 20-30 seconds before it will sink in unlike pain that registers straight off. He calls this 3 step process “taking in the good.”

The brain does not do a good job of storing facts, especially small or unimportant facts.

Did you know that the bulk of all learning, maybe 80% or more, is emotional, not intellectual?

Want to remember something? Turn it into an emotional experience, not a fact. Here is a happiness example.

You are walking along at a fast clip, trying to get your exercise done before sunset. Nice sunset. Nice flower I just passed. Glad when this jogging stuff is over and I can rest. Is that the way many of us do this exercising thing?

What would happen if you stopped and looked at the sunset? How long can you stare at your neighbor’s flowers before she calls the cops? If you pause and look, for as little as twenty to thirty seconds, give this experience time to soak into your brain, you will greatly increase the likelihood of remembering this experience as a pleasant one. Let a few of these 30-second experiences accumulate and you might become a happiness expert.

What – you too busy to spend 30 seconds collecting happiness?

But wait there is more. Hanson also said that besides slowing down and turning the facts into an experience, holding the feeling for the 30 seconds we also need to make a conscious effort to save the experience.

So if you set out to become a happiness expert, invest the time, feel the feeling when it comes, and plan to hold on to it and capture it in your brain.

You too can become a happiness expert and prevent happiness invisibility.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

Sniping wires that connect you to problems.

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Cutting the wires that connect you to your problems.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Ending the connections with your problems.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could solve our life problems by just tossing them out? Just toss that addiction, the depression, and the clutter out in the trash can and now life will be grand. Lose that excess weight – once and for all. Why doesn’t it work that way?

Our problems are not just a single thing ready for disposal. Often they are an integrated part of our life. Life problems are connected by lots of wires to other aspects of our life. We have a host of wires connecting our problems with the rest of our lives. These wires are elastic like bungee cords, toss the problem and it keeps bouncing back.

We see this in relationships that crash and burn. We see it in addiction and we see it in lots of self-help failures.

A couple can’t get along, they divorce, but there are children, the children act like wires pulling the parents back together. Calling the ex to complain about “look what your son did” or to argue about money and the needs of the children keep the dysfunctional relationship alive. I have seen couples ten years post-divorce and already with new partners who still manage to call each other once a week to continue the old marital argument.

“Rightism” that need to prove you are right long after it has stopped mattering is a common defect of character.

Just because you end a relationship does not mean the connections are severed. You divorce your partner but not your kids. I warn teens when I counsel them that you can break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend but babies mommas and babies daddies are forever. The key here is to maintain the relationship with the ex as your child’s parent while cutting all the old relationship wires. The wires of anger, bitterness, and resentments keep us connected to the pain of the past.

Any 12 step meeting is sure to have a couple of people, sometimes more, who are not drinking, but they are not happy about being sober. You can spot these people in a flash. Ten years not drinking and they are still angry and resentful, unwilling to do any work on self-change. They keep the wires that connect them to their addiction connected and eventually most of them are pulled back to the problem.

Three things we all should know can keep us connected to our problems, people, places and things.

Most of us have people in our lives that help maintain our problems. Plan to lose weight? Do you drop by that friend’s house, you know the one I mean, the one that is a good cook and always has a fresh-baked cake ready to help you eat instead of exercise.

Do all your friends have your same problem and are they stuck in the problem and not the solution?  Addicts in recovery find most of their “friends” are really just using associates. Going to see old friends often means doing old behaviors. Hard to cut wires of bad relationships? They have a strong pull to take you back to old behaviors.

Places are also strong wires that bind us to our past. The old saying goes – “Hang out in a barbershop and you get a haircut. Do you think it is safe to visit a bar?

When a mental illness takes hold people may find that they can’t return to the place they used to work or even the career they used to hold. Not that the place or job makes them mentally ill but the tendency to slip back into old patterns, to work too much, neglect self-care, all these things set you up for another round of illness.

Do you have some wires connecting you to your problems that need to be sniped?

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

Health Improvement programs – what works what doesn’t

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Full ashtray

Smoking cigarettes.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Have you seen any shortage of weight loss programs?

Not from what I can see. Weight loss especially quick weight loss and get in shape fast programs are everywhere. In the vast literature of “self-improvement,” weight loss and fitness is king. Some programs work, at least a little. Many do not, especial in the long run.

SAMHSA recently looked at health improvement programs targeted towards the mentally ill. It is especially difficult for people on psychiatric meds to maintain or reduce their weight. Fitness is a goal that eludes many mentally ill. Psychiatric meds pack on the pounds or demolish the appetite and result in severe weight loss. There seems to be no middle ground.

So what worked and what did not?

Short-term improvement programs did not work!

The longer the program the better! We have all heard about quick weight loss programs. A very few really do take some weight off quickly in time for that reunion. The problem with quick weight loss programs is that the weight comes right back on a, d usually brings some of its friends. The net result – you weigh more after the crash diet than before.

For long-term permanent weight loss, even weight management to stabilize weight, six months was a minimum time. The longer the length of time in the program the more effective it was.

Wellness education by itself did not work!

Reading books and taking classes do not work unless coupled with a set of activates that produce the desired results. Having a guide or a partner who does the activities with you is much more effective than listening to a teacher tell you how to do something healthy and then having to do the activity on your own.

Diet alone rarely works.

Programs that include diet or improved nutrition were only effective when they also included an increase in activities. Conversely, an increase in activity is often offset when the increase in appetite which makes you hungry and you eat more. It takes both an increase in activity and a reduction in food intact to result in significant weight loss.

Interestingly though, people who increased their activity and exercised more, had improved health even when they did not diet and lost no weight.

Conclusions about health improvements programs for the mentally ill.

While these are important ideas for everyone, they are especially important to those with mental illnesses. More than 42% of adults with serious mental illness are obese. Over 80 % of those with schizophrenia do not physically exercise despite the fact the anti-psychotics are notorious for causing weight gain. Research suggests that as little as a 5% weight loss improves health.

It is important to reiterate that more than half of all the cigarettes smoked in America are consumed by someone with a mental health or substance abuse disorder. There has been some research that suggests that nicotine is soothing to those with emotional problems. Anyone who has worked in the mental health field learns to identify the person with psychosis by the scent of tobacco even before they see the client. People with psychosis often are two and three packs per day smokers. Even if nicotine may have an effect on some of the brains receptors and make people with psychosis feel better I remain concerned about the poisonous effects of nicotine. Additionally, anything on fire is likely to cause damage to the body when sucked into the lungs.

A healthy lifestyle for someone with a mental illness should include not just weight loss but an improved activity level and other lifestyle changes that result in a healthier life. Those changes are more likely to be effective when the health improvement program includes others as active participants, continues over a long time frame and involves exercise, diet and improved lifestyle choices.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

Willpower Shortage

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Willpower

Willpower.

Willpower Shortage.

Of late it has become standard practice to decry the shortage of willpower here in America, maybe the shortage of willpower on planet earth. How did this worldwide shortage develop?

The shortage does not seem to be of recent origin. Writers from the Plymouth Colony, writing shortly after the founding in the 1620’s expressed their concern that people could not display significant willpower to avoid breaking the laws. I am told that there are passages in the Bible about a lack of willpower though I am not sure if it is found in the book of Leviticus or not. Presumably, this worldwide shortage of willpower has been going on for thousands of years.

If we can find oil deep under the sea and rocks on the moon why is it that there has been no significant discovery of additional willpower in all these millenniums? Perhaps we have been looking for the wrong thing in the wrong places. Behaviorists, like Martin and Pear, believe they have discovered the source of the willpower shortage. They say there are in fact two very different creatures that we are calling willpower and that we keep looking for the wrong one in the wrong place. Could that be?

Determination.

Willpower One might more properly be called determination.  This is the willpower required to do something that we know would be good for us but that is unpleasant or painful while we are doing it. Exercise is a good example. We all know we should do more exercise. It has all those positive benefits, like losing weight and being healthier. But it is hard to think about doing something that involves effort and possible unpleasant pain when there is that nice warm comfy couch sitting there and there are 36 new movies on the cable that beg to be watched.

It takes a special brand of willpower to give up a current pleasure or reward, sitting on the couch and watching movies, to secure far-off benefits like weight loss and improved health. To continue to engage in this effort for a deferred gain we need lots of positive encouragements and reinforcements. This is why people who exercise in groups where they encourage each other are more likely to succeed than those who try to do an exercise program alone.

The problem with shortages of this first kind of willpower is that the current negative of the action does not seem to have much connection to a far-off positive result like weight loss. It is hard to make yourself do something today for a gain a long time from now. This kind of willpower deficiency also accounts for the lack of retirement savings of many citizens.

One way to offset this is to turn the negative into a positive. Instead of exercising, pick a hobby that involves activity. Square dancing comes to mind. You get some positive people interactions coupled with the advantage of exercise and it could be fun.

Self-denial

Will Power Two, maybe we should call this self-denial, is the kind of willpower needed to get ourselves to give up something that we know is not good for us but is so much fun. In this type of willpower, the problem is to skip those extra goodies that put on the pounds. We know that obesity is bad. And we know that eating a few extra calories will over time pack the pounds on. But it is hard to connect in our minds the extra pounds and the health impairment a year from now with the one extra cookie. Usually, the one extra cookie wins out.

In trying to cut down on things like extra cookies or cigarettes the challenge is to give up a current pleasure for a far off good. Addictions fall in this class of shortage of willpower. One behavioral approach is to create a script that you say to your self. Behaviorists call this self-instruction. You might say to yourself that you do not need that drug or that cookie and that you are looking good. Substance abusers find that the more time they spend with people who encourage them to stay sober the more likely they are to succeed.

At this point, we are almost a month into the year. How many of you have given up on your New Years resolution? Did you read my series on stages of change? Think about where you are in this change process and how you might start moving forward.

If you are short on willpower, what positive things could you use to reward yourself for doing those hard to do things? What could you do to make giving up those current pleasures to secure a long-term goal feel less like a sacrifice?

Anyone out there have an experience to share that involves making a change and increasing your willpower?

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

Want the latest on news from recoveryland, the field of counseling, my writing projects, speaking and teaching? Please sign up for my newsletter at – Newsletter. I promise not to share your email or to send you spam, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

Creating an underachiever

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Mistakes and errors

Mistakes.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

We hear there are a lot of underachievers in our society. Our schools and workplaces seem to be designed to create them. If you want to turn someone with a natural talent into an underachiever the process is simple. Here are the steps you will need to take to create an underachiever.

Your child does something cute, it may not be perfect but that first burst of effort gets noticed. You give them lots of praise. What they did was adorable. You tell them so. They love all the attention. In school, the child may put in extra effort to study and do well on a test. For this example let’s say it was a math test. But it could be a sports skill, art or anything where superior performance would be noticed. They are rewarded with acknowledgment, a good grade. Everyone is happy. They should be motivated to continue putting in the effort. But they don’t. Why?

On the job site, there might be a critical project, a report that needs to be out right away. This is something that takes extra effort. The employee puts in a burst of effort to get the task done. They get the task completed and they get some praise. They feel good about their effort. Then something goes wrong, very wrong.

The child who got lots of recognition begins to be thought of as good at math. The teacher stops spending time with the child on his lessons. There are other students who need her help more. The parents may slack off on helping the child with his homework. He doesn’t need help, right? He is good at math. This time the child gets no help. They study, for sure, just not as hard. No one seems to care about them and they are identified as good at math. Then their grade slips, maybe on the first test, maybe slowly over time. No one notices till the grade gets back to the level of the rest of the class. Suddenly everyone notices.

The employee, who got that report out on time, now gets assigned a lot of reports to do. They are good at report writing, aren’t they?  But now the recognition and the praise stop coming. They are expected to always do better so they start getting assigned more work. Now if that employee gets a raise or a better office that may continue to be rewarding. But often they get taken for granted and the work piles up. Until one day they turn out a report that is not very good or they turn it out late. Then the boss has a talk with them.

Now in both cases, the person is now getting noticed again. The child may study extra hard for the next test. The employee may work extra hard on the next report. They both get a renewed round of attention for their renewed efforts. But this second round of notice fades faster than the first. What is the lesson these people learn from this?

In both cases, they learn that there are more rewards from occasional flashes of brilliance than from persistent good performance. So they learn to hold back most of the time and then occasionally do a superior job which is always rewarded by being noticed. They have learned the advantages of underachievement. If people have low expectations of you, you get rewarded for good work, but if people expect a lot from you, you might occasionally fail and that will be punished.

This procedure is not the only one that encourages people to fail.

The child wants to please his mother. She tells him to come to help with the dishes. So the child finishes what he is doing and then comes to help. He tries really hard. At the end mother thanks him for the help and then adds that back-handed compliment – “But you could have come sooner.” The lesson learned – no amount of effort is good enough. Maybe they start to think they are not good enough.

Another child may study really hard for the math test. They get ninety-nine correct out of the one hundred questions. Is the parent happy? No! They say to the child “Why did you get that one wrong? You knew that!”

No matter how much that child or that report writing employee do, it will never be enough. Pretty soon the connection between their efforts and success or failure doesn’t look to be working. They may develop a connection that Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.”  You might want to check out his book called “Learned Optimism.”

So what is the solution to this problem? If you are that child’s parent or teacher, don’t take superior achievement for granted, keep positively reinforcing it. You don’t need to praise the child every time, but over time you need to vary the intervals between praise so the child knows you are still noticing their efforts. If you are the boss or supervisor of a good employee make sure you don’t take them for granted and pile extra work on them while letting the less able employees slide. The rewards need to match the effort and the work output.

What should you do if you are that child or employee and people no longer notice your efforts? What if you were not rewarded as a child and grew up as an underachiever? Are you doomed? Not at all!

In all these examples the problem for the person who is no longer getting rewarded is that they needed reinforcement from external sources. If you can learn to have what we might call an “internal locus of control,” if you can learn to do things so that you can be proud of yourself, then that lack of reinforcement may not affect you so much.

So it would appear that one of the secrets of having a happy life is being happy with the life you are leading.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.