There appears to be a widespread belief in our culture which can be stated as, “you need to make someone feel bad first in order to motivate them to do better” (to paraphrase Dr. Jane Nelson in her book, Positive Discipline (2011)).  This belief underlies much of the teaching, disciplining, and influencing that is done by teachers, parents, friends, significant others, supervisors, marketers, and politicians in our society.  The idea is to first make someone feel bad, fearful, angry, or guilty, before telling them what you want them to do.  For example, children are punished for bad behavior in the belief that this will make them behave better in the future.  Employees receive criticism in oral or written form in order to motivate them to do a better job.  Negative criticism or anger is expressed towards friends and significant others in the hope that they will treat us better in the future.  Consumers are made to feel unhappy about their lack of some product so they will be induced to buy the product in order to feel better.  Voters are given messages that encourage them to fear fearful or angry about their situation in society and then led to vote for whoever promises to improve their unhappy situation.

As noted in an earlier post, making other people feel guilty or ashamed is another way of diminishing them.  In the same way, we may severely criticize ourselves in the hope of achieving self-improvement, but diminishing ourselves is usually not an effective way of motivating ourselves to change.  The problem with this approach is that when we feel diminished, we feel less able to change, not more.  Research has shown that we are better able to change after receiving positive reinforcement for our actions, i.e., being enhanced by responses that highlight the positive aspects of our current actions.    Positive reinforcement not only motivates us more to want to change, it also gives us information about what specific actions are part of that change.  For example, we receive praise for being persistent in working on tasks, and we not only want to keep doing this, we also understand what we are doing that led to the praise, i.e., being persistent.

The concept of responsibility is relevant in this context.  Most people think that if we say that a person is responsible, it is the same as saying they are guilty, but there is a big difference between the two concepts.  When I was a child and my parents said that I was responsible for something, they meant I was guilty of having done it.  When they said that I “needed to be more responsible”, I cringed because I knew that this meant they would try to make me feel guilty or ashamed if I did something they did not like.

There is another way of viewing “being responsible” that is much more enhancing and distinguishes it from the diminishing view of “being guilty”.  Being responsible in a situation means that we are “able to respond” and are not just victims of circumstances beyond our control.  We may have been part of the cause of the present situation, but now we can choose to be part of changing the situation.  When we note that someone is responsible for a particular outcome, we are also saying that they can now choose to act differently in that situation.  If responsibility was not present, that would indicate that something happened to the person that was beyond their control, an idea which indicates and promotes helplessness in individuals.  One reason that people resist being identified as being responsible for some outcome is that they confuse guilt with responsibility and assume they will be punished for their actions (or they are punishing themselves out of guilt).  The concept of guilt primarily involves looking back at past actions and punishing people for those actions.  The concept of responsibility is more forward looking, indicating that people can make a difference in their future by creating ways to make something come out better than it did in the past.

A future post will describe how being “lost in our imagination” can cause us to be severely anxious and/or depressed, and how mindfulness can keep that from happening.

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