Melting Away Your Self-Defeating Behaviors with Behaviorism, Part 2

Are you ready to make some changes?

Welcome to the second post in the Behaviourism inspired series. The first post presented the basics, with a view to uncovering and understanding our associations. This article builds on those concepts, presenting solid processes and thoughts for practical change.

Working with Rewards

Weve discussed how certain behaviours are very attractive to us because they have been associated with a reward. The problem is, of course, that many of these were pairings are accidental, unintentional, and work against us.

This makes the first application easy to guess. We continue to reward certain behaviours, except this time we do so consciously. Let’s take exercise as an example. The health benefits of a regular exercise routine are well-known to all. But why are so many of us still so lazy?

A few reasons come to mind:

  1. We don’t see the benefits immediately. The perceived benefits of exercise – more energy, better sleep, a slimmer body – seem to be so far away in the future that it lacks power as a motivator. Many people will choose to enjoy the short term benefits or to avoid short term pain instead. For instance, the short term pleasure of lying on the couch will seem more attractive.
  2. The reward is not strong or important enough. This is especially true when we link punishment with exercise – burning lungs, sore muscles, or lots of sweat, for example. The reward has to be much stronger than the punishment to overcome inertia. A man who goes jogging because he will die otherwise will not care about sore muscles; a man who jogs because someone forced him might find the same soreness to be unbearable.
  3. This is a sub-point to the above. The pay-off or punishment is much stronger when it is emotional. We can have all the logical reasons to start jogging, but a lack of emotional reward (or the presence of emotional punishment) can keep us lazy.
  4. Lastly, the reward has not been reinforced enough. To really develop a good pairing requires repetition and time. Many of us either do not reinforce it often enough, or give up before a good association has been built.

To summarise, remember the three keys: immediacy, strength (even better if strong emotions are involved), and reinforcement. Further, remember that variable reinforcement can often be more effective than continuous reinforcement.

Let’s see how we can apply this to other pursuits in life. John is too shy to approach his dream girl for a date. He is already pairing a negative reward – removal of loneliness – to his goal. Sophie wants to quit her job and return to college to pursue a different career. She has already paired greater career satisfaction with her goal. What else would you recommend they do to make the pairing even stronger?

A Caution

At this point I have to insert a caution: This is just a tool in your toolbox. It works well for smaller habits, or as a “jump-start” to get us out of a rut of inactivity. Personally, I find the value of Behaviourism to be in self-understanding, not really in the applications. Im writing including some parts of this article mostly for those who prefer change on the behaviour level.

Allow me to explain. Some writers recommend building every positive habit in this way, but I feel many things can go wrong. Repression would be one. If John is shy because he has deep insecurities about his value as a person, and he forces himself to socialise, he might get short term results. However, he will still be a shy, insecure boy underneath it all, which will interfere in other ways! If he does woo his dream girl, for instance, he might become a clingy or controlling lover.

My recommendation would be to use this as a jump-start, as mentioned, but the real work would be the processes covered in the original Behavioural Mastery series.

Further, these concepts are presented for personal use. Using them on other people can have long term effects we are not initially aware of, and isnt recommended. One example: many parents reward their children for achievements such as good grades in school. Nothing wrong with that, but done to excess, the result could be an adult with low self-esteem. As a child, the message she was given was: she has no value as a person, her value only lies in her school results!

Reinforcement For Behaviours We Wish To Break

The real value of this theory lies in finding our pairings. As with the little girl above, pairings can be “implanted” by other people (such as our parents), by accident, and often without us even knowing.

A good example would be my old smoking habit. It would be obvious to see that I had paired a cigarette with stress release. But when I did some digging, I began to see some pairings that had been put in me by others, without my (or even their) knowledge. As a teenager I had unknowingly associated smoking with being in control, with maturity, and many other things.

After we find our associations, we can process them but not with Behaviourist techniques. Underneath all behaviours are thoughts and emotions, and it is more effective to change those. UrbanMonk.Net has covered three such techniques; lets explore them.

Before we begin, phrase your association into a statement that feels right for you. For example, my statement was: Smoking is mature and powerful.

  1. Emotions. If you prefer to work with emotions, please read this article on Releasing. Next, read your statement. Welcome any feelings that statement brings up, and release them. If you use the Sedona Method, releasing the underlying wants will speed up the process. We repeat this until there isn’t any emotional charge left. This can take some time depending on how strong the pairing is, and it is helpful to return to the statement after a day or two, to see if anything else has surfaced.
  2. The Work. If you prefer to work with thoughts, there are two options. The first is The Work of Byron Katie, with my three article guide. Inquire into your statement. The most powerful part of the process is the turnaround. I firmly believed that smoking is mature and powerful, until I tried the turnaround – smoking is immature and weak – and saw that it held more truth. I was smoking as a way of filling and hiding from my emotional insecurities, instead of facing it and dealing with them as a mature man would. That helped me drop my original association.
  3. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The last option is covered in Knowing and Mastering Your Thoughts with CBT. First, find the cognitive distortions in your statement. A helpful step would be to visit your past and find where you picked up the pairing. Lastly, using the “healthy” voice, as detailed in that article, to support and coach yourself as you feel the urges is a tremendously powerful step.
  4. The Behaviourist View. If you wish to change on the behaviour level, simply stop rewarding yourself. It might be helpful to think of a pet dog. It is used to gaining your attention by sniffing at your feet, so simply stop giving it what it is used to. After an extinction burst (see below), the dog will lose interest. We can apply this to ourselves with a bit of willpower – find the hidden pay-off you receive from your behaviour, and deny it to yourself, no matter what. Keep in mind the variable schedules discussed in the first post – if we deny ourselves only sometimes, we actually become more addicted. I recommend you combine this with releasing. Releasing also has another bonus – you can release by visualising yourself in the situation without actually placing yourself in it. As you can imagine, this is tremendously helpful if you are worried the urge will overwhelm you.

Working With Punishment

To work with the principle of punishment, simply apply the concepts above with some modifications. The most obvious application of punishment is to break a bad habit. Begin to pair your self-defeating behaviour with something that you are averse to, keeping in mind the same key points: strength, immediacy, and repetition.

Let’s go back to my smoking example. Since I started smoking, I have been aware of the health risks. However, cancer felt very far away in the future, almost unreal. The fear began when I started getting chest pains, which caused me to research cancer on the internet. The pictures and descriptions began to intensify my fear – cancer suddenly felt very real. It was no longer something that happened to people in their 70s and 80s, it felt like it could happen to me any time soon. And that fear was the punishment I had strongly linked to each cigarette. It was strong and immediate enough to override any pleasures I had also associated with smoking.

A Caution

Another caution: using punishment can be a bad idea. I know I just gave an example, above, but that association I formed was unintentional. Moreover, I did not use it exclusively. It gave me the motivation to quit, but my real quitting work involved a mixture of releasing and inquiry, as detailed above. (I also had to do some letting go of my cancer fears!)

Some writers recommend using it exclusively. They see punishing bad behaviours as the only technique you will ever need. This is potentially harmful, even though there might be short-term results. Just one possibility: what if one becomes desensitised to the punishment? They then have to increase the punishment “dosage”, all the while continuing their self-defeating behaviour.

And again, I would recommend this only as a last resort “jump-start”, a motivator to being the real work of releasing and inquiring, which have far more gentle and long-lasting results. And if you ever find the time, it is a good idea to release and inquire into the punishments you have set for yourself!

Undoing Punishments

The next way we can begin to apply our knowledge of punishment is simple. Have we been linking punishment for things that are good for us, or for things we have to do?

Let’s use a boring, mundane, example at this point, to let you generalise it to your own behaviours. How many of us enjoy doing laundry, or washing the dishes? Most of us don’t, for we have linked those to boredom, repetition, or wasting time.

There are two things we can do, then. The first is to link these activities to pleasure, as discussed above. Put on some music, dance and shake your buttocks, the next time you are washing your clothes! Make sure these rewards are strong enough to overcome the punishments.

The next is to remove the punishment we have associated with it. If we have linked laundry to repetition, for example, we can break up our routine. This doesn’t have to be big. I used to drive a different route everyday to and from my university. Some of these routes were a waste of time and petrol, and sometimes I got lost, but I did it gladly – it broke up the repetition and always gave me some new sight to enjoy.

My friend, a salesman, used to tell me that he hated going to meetings, for they were just excuses for his manager to yell at him. He overcame this pairing in a rather child-like but effective way: he made it a game to count the number of cuss words, or grimaces, or snarls, the manager made that day.

Lastly, and most effectively, we can use the three tools we discussed in the rewards section above: releasing, inquiring, and using CBT to look into the punishments. Is it really painful to be yelled at? Why is it scary to start your own business? What will really happen if your dream boy or girl rejected you?


The last thing to cover, then, is the extinction phase. This is a period where the pairing weakens and eventually disappears. However, we have to be prepared for the extinction burst.

The burst refers to a sudden increase in the activity you are trying to stop. This is best seen with an illustration. Imagine a little child who normally gets your attention by throwing his toys at the wall. If you decide to ignore him, he will usually respond by making his racket even worse! This is actually a sign of strength, carried over from evolution, that he is not about to give up without a fight. However, if you do not give in, he will eventually slow down and stop.

This is important to remember because many people give up and think they have failed when they are actually succeeding – they’re going through a normal and expected spike in the urge.

Also be aware of spontaneous recovery. Sometimes an extinct behaviour can come back in full force without any apparent reason. If this happens, remember it is not a sign of failure or weakness, and just go through the process again. If you have done the deeper releasing or inquiry work, this should be rare, and the second time will be easier.

What’s Next?

Hopefully this post will have expanded your appreciation of Behaviourism a little. The next post will be a shorter one, and begin to apply these concepts into our internal world. What are the payoffs we receive from indulging in our hatred or our guilt, even though we know it hurts us? It will lead into a series on detailing specific emotions or states of consciousness. (Maybe with a guest post in between to give you a break  )


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