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Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Magic of Positive Reinforcement

Hey All -- Sunday night, and it's about that time, so here it is . . . .

It is often said that a pat on the back is sometimes more helpful than a kick in the pants.  It is also often said that attitude determines everything.  This week, I saw both of these axioms tried and proven.

I have a 91 year old grandmother, known for much of her life to be a "tough old bird."  She never let anyone or anything keep her down, but it appears that the aging process has caught up to her.  She has taken an extended stay in a rehab center and a local hospital due to various complications.

My Mom, being the loyal daughter she is, couldn't stand to know that my grandmother was suffering while she was many states away.  So, on a whim, she and my Dad decided to fly up here to New York and see her, to make sure her condition didn't get any worse.

Within 24 hours of their arrival, her condition improved.  Within 48 hours, she was discharged from the hospital.

Days after that, I came to visit her too, and I saw something really special happen.  Both my parents tried to explain to my grandmother that she would need to continue the exercise and physical therapy that she had been prescribed in order to continue to be able to walk.  My father had the more persuasive approach -- unlike his children, my father has always hated exercising.  He still does, but since he survived a triple bypass, he knows he has to do it every single day.  He explained to my grandmother that he hates exercise just as much as she does, but that sometimes we have to do things we'd rather not do because the alternative is unacceptable.  My grandmother, much like her first grandson, never liked being told she had to do something distasteful, but she listened to my father nonetheless.

The reason that much of this blog is devoted to denouncing bullying in all of its forms is because bullying is the ultimate example of negative reinforcement.  It is the continued and involuntary exposure to communications and actions designed to convince the recipient that he or she is abject and worthless.  Through the constant repetition that accompanies it, it usually results in convincing the recipient that this message is correct, and if left unchecked, it results in the recipient's demise.

Fortunately, positive reinforcement is just as powerful.  When delivered with the same repetition as negative reinforcement, it convinces the recipient that the Four Pillars apply, and then some.  When mixed with a certain degree of action in lieu of the repetition, it can work near-miracles.  Case and point, when my parents came to visit my grandmother, she almost became her old self.  My grandmother understood that there were people who cared about her very deeply, and wanted her to be healthy, and were willing to do something extra to make that happen.  Sometimes knowledge of self-affirming truths like these can move mountains.

This is further exemplified in my chosen sport of running.  When we see people who run at a less expeditious pace than we do, we do not ridicule them.  We do not question their intelligence or their gender identity.  We do not mock them, impugn them, or condescend.  Instead, we cheer them in, as if they were going for a world record.  We remind them that they are achieving an incredible accomplishment merely by putting on their shoes, pinning a bib on their shirt, and participating in the race to begin with.  We reinforce their efforts to put forth their best efforts.  And these people tend to cross the finish line happy, regardless of their time or pace, because hearing these messages reminds them that they were not mistaken to run that race.  Sometimes, those messages encourage them to run another race, and then another, and then another, and then another . . . .

There is a place in this world for criticism and judgment.  Please keep both of them in that place, and have the wisdom to know when they're not necessary.

There is also a place for encouragement, reinforcement, and positive affirmations.  Quite frankly, there is a greater need for them than there is for even the most analytical criticism or the clearest judgment.

Oh pleeeease, why should anyone care what anyone else says, they should already believe in themselves first, let them develop their own self esteem on their own time, they should have thicker skins . . . . .

Grrr.  Shut.  Up.  And.  Leave.  Please.

Next time you see someone suffering, show some positive reinforcement.  If it's a homeless person in the subway, maybe some spare change would let that person know that somebody still cares.  Or better yet, give him that sandwich that you might not have really wanted to eat for lunch -- that would be even better reinforcement.  If you see somebody forlorn or sad, shoot them a quick smile -- that costs nothing.  It'll lift somebody up an inch or two, and it might improve your disposition too.

As stated earlier on Facebook, this blog is taking an upward turn -- more positive reinforcement, as documented above, and more encouragement towards goals and success.  Just in time for the Ten Days of Awe, which will be explained to the uninformed in the next week or so.

Good night, everybody!

I EXIST.  I MATTER.  I BELONG.  I DESERVE.