This page is a collection of writing that I find evocative of the work in therapy, or descriptive of issues that come up in people’s lives, or that seems like it might be helpful in some way. Some of it is articles I have written as a topic expert for GoodTherapy.org, and some I have written especially for this site. Some of the rest is writing by other people, especially poetry, that speaks to me in some way about suffering in life and how some people endure, transform, and flourish.
The other day I wrote some about how much of my therapy work has in common with some of the basic lessons I learned training my dog, Lucy, in puppy class. If you missed it, you can read here about how we tend to project intent onto dogs (and people!) depending on how we feel about something they did. You can also laugh about my “purple” incident, and read about how it’s important to make sure (vs. assuming) our meaning is understood.
Today I have some stories about how we (dogs and people) learn—what helps us learn to do the right thing, consistently, and how some modes of “teaching” end up giving a different lesson than we intend.
Reinforcement, or, I Do This Because I Want To and Not Because I’m Scared Not To
Mel’s puppy training class is based on positive reinforcement, which means rewarding the behavior you desire. Lucy sits when I say sit, and I give her a treat. She sits when I say “purple,” she doesn’t get a treat. She jumps up on me, which I don’t like, but instead of forcing her down or yelling at her I ignore her and wait for her to quiet herself. When she does, she gets a treat. Pretty soon she’s not jumping at all (no reward, only being ignored, which is no fun for a puppy!) and all four paws remain on the floor when anyone greets her.
I encourage the humans I work with to experiment with positive reinforcement. Did your husband apologize for criticizing you? Tell him how good that made you feel to hear his “I’m sorry.” Did your son pick up his room? Give him a hug and thank him. Did you get up for a run this morning? Pat yourself on the back and acknowledge how awesome you are. Ignore the three-year-old’s tantrum, and give her a small reward when she calms down. Positive reinforcement can be simple, and it doesn’t need any explanation.
In dog training, positive reinforcement works best when you set your puppy up for success instead of failure. I can, and I did, train Lucy to leave food alone when I say “leave it,” but it helps to not leave food out all the time. I found this out the day I was making some cookies and left some butter on the counter to soften. I left to run an errand, telling Lucy to “leave it.” When I returned, Lucy’s entire muzzle was slick with grease and there was no butter to be found. Our training was set back a few steps as I taught her that “leave it” means “keep leaving it alone even when I’m out of the room” and she taught me “Mama can help Lucy be a good dog by putting temptation out of reach when possible.”
Taking away the chance to goof up helped the training go much faster, as Lucy had more chances to do things right (and cement the correct response) and fewer chances to do things wrong (and weaken the association between the command and the correct response). This works with people, too; with children, with adults, and with ourselves. When we’re trying to do a new thing (say, go on a diet) it helps to set ourselves up for success (not have cookies in the house). We help children learn in similar concrete ways be removing things from their environment that could be confusing or harmful to them (we teach them to master their letters a few at a time, and put covers on the outlets until they know better not to stick fingers in there). As we grow more confident with our new behavior, we are more able to ignore the distractions, temptations, and irrelevancies that would challenge our learning at first.
A quick word about punishment as a tool in learning: it doesn’t work. At least, it won’t work consistently or well, and even if it works in a limited way, it does so at the cost of you feeling good about your relationship with your dog (or your person). Mel taught me that dogs generally don’t have the sense of future planning for the threat of punishment to keep them from misbehavior; Lucy might learn not to pee on the rug if I spank her when I see her do it, but she can’t reliably extrapolate that threat to understand she can’t pee on the rug when I’m not around. I can’t succeed by punishing her for misbehavior, because punishment only “works” when I’m around to deliver it. And more importantly, punishment communicates only “don’t do this,” it contains no information about what I do want Lucy to do (pee outside, not on the rug when I’m not around, or on a different rug, or on anything that’s not outside).
There’s a lot of kickback to this idea, but punishment doesn’t work with people, either. Though we can more reliably extrapolate threats to the future (“Dad would kill me if I took this candy from the store”), we have other ways to get around it (“But he’ll never find out”). We human beings are masters at avoiding punishment by all means necessary—rationalization, lying, subterfuge—all means, that is, except for avoiding misbehavior. (How many people actually drive the speed limit when no cop car is in sight?)
As with dogs, punishment does not motivate us to do the right thing or even communicate what the “right thing” is. Of course, there are times when it’s important to know not to do the wrong thing, and at these times it’s helpful to learn from the consequences (different from punishment) of misbehavior: If I cheat on my diet, I gain weight. If my son spends all his allowance money on candy, he won’t have anything left for that toy he’s saving up for. If Sally cheats on John, John will break up with her. Consequences are different from punishment in that they are a natural derivation from the misbehavior. Like punishment, consequences are unpleasant to experience, but because consequences don’t depend on someone to mete them out they are a more effective deterrent to misbehavior.
Over time, Lucy’s positive behaviors were so well practiced that they were habit for her and I didn’t need to constantly reward them. But Mel cautioned me to make sure to reinforce them on occasion so that good behavior didn’t become stale. We can do that with ourselves and each other, too, after we have learned new habits and gained deeper understanding in our relationships. Where constant positive reinforcement or conversations about intent and meaning would come across as condescending, periodic reward or “checking in” with someone lets them know we still care and are still connected. I’m glad to say this approach has helped Lucy remain a wonderful dog—and I hope that the human version of Puppy Training 101 will do as well for you.
Thanks again to Mel for allowing me to use her name and real-life examples from her training classes. For more information about actual dog behavior and the finer details of training, please visit Mel’s excellent website.
I have joked from time to time that most of my interventions in therapy come, with few small changes, directly from the lessons I learned in Puppy Training 101 with Lucy. Now I’m not strictly a behaviorist, and of course there are all sorts of other interesting subtleties about therapy I learned in graduate school. But human behavior and relationships, at their core, are informed by the same principles that guide dog training. I find myself coming back to these basic points:
Intent, or, Why Are You Doing That?
In the beginning, I took Lucy to puppy training because I thought she was out of control. I couldn’t pick her up—and she was a bright-eyed, golden ball of fluff, just begging to be cuddled—without her digging her little needle puppy teeth into whatever body part of mine she could reach. My hands, arms, and ankles were scabbed with tiny punctures. I was despondent: Weren’t retrievers supposed to be friendly? My dog was vicious! She never stopped biting! I didn’t have a dog; I had a piranha in a puppy’s clothing.
My trainer Mel reframed my understanding of Lucy’s “aggressive” intent right away. “She’s a retriever,” Mel said. “Her strongest instinct is to have something in her mouth, and she doesn’t know better yet how to tell what does and doesn’t belong in there.” Mel advised me to always have a toy to cram in Lucy’s mouth when I wanted to handle her which, thus occupied, I could do without harm.
When Lucy’s puppy teeth fell out and she gained some adult sense, she stopped reflexively chomping on whatever was nearest. And I learned that, in my distress about her biting, I had made attributions about her behavior that had more to do with my being upset than her actual doggy intentions.
We do that with people, too. We often interpret another’s intent in terms colored by how we feel about that person’s behavior: That hurt my feelings, so they were trying to be mean to me. They are late for lunch, so they clearly don’t care about me. In therapy, I try to help people separate their emotional reaction from their understanding of intent; to recognize that something that feels like “aggression” might just be “being a retriever.” Knowing that someone else might have different intent than we surmise can help us figure out ways of interacting with them that aren’t painful.
Specificity, or, I Know Exactly What You Want
After a the first two weeks of puppy class, I was smug. Lucy seemed to be the star. She was the first puppy to sit consistently, every time I asked her. I did it in class, turning to Lucy, looking her in her bright little eye, and sternly saying “Sit!” Lucy planted her furry little butt on the ground, and everybody clapped. Mel asked if she could use Lucy to demonstrate, and I proudly handed over the leash. Mel turned to Lucy, and the class watched in silence. “Purple!” Mel commanded, and Lucy sat. Everyone laughed.
Mel handed the leash back to me and explained, “Sometimes we think they understand us, but all she really understands right now is that when someone turns to her and says a word, she is supposed to sit down. You will have to do more work to be sure she understands ‘sit’ means ‘sit’ and ‘down’ or ‘leave it’ or ‘heel’ mean something else. We can’t always be sure about the extent of a dog’s understanding unless we find ways to test it and make sure it is specific.”
Again, the same is true for people. We assume that someone else knows what we expect from them because, most of the time, their behavior seems to indicate they understand. Then when someone makes a mistake, or does something unexpected, we get annoyed: Why did they screw up? Don’t they care anymore?
It helps to take time to make sure we’re on the same page when we negotiate tasks, decisions, or even life plans with another person. We can’t take the appearance of congruence (“if we’re living together that means we’ll get married”) to mean that all parties have the same understanding. We need to articulate the difference between “sit” and “purple” with each other, and not let mute behavior be the only guarantor of mutual understanding.
Do you have people in your life (or dogs, for that matter) that you feel out of sync with at times? I encourage you to try an experiment today: Pick a time to purposefully interact with them in Puppy Class 101 style. Keep an open mind about intent, for example, and let yourself separate your emotional reaction to something a person did from the reasons that person did it. That doesn’t mean you can’t feel annoyed, or surprised, or happy, or sad about something that happens. But it might be interesting to discover what the intent of the other person really was—were they being aggressive, or a retriever?
Here’s a chance to experiment with specificity, and if you trust this other person you might check in about their intent: “Hey, when you grunted at me this morning I wondered if I had annoyed you in some way, and I felt bad” you might venture. The other person might say “Yes, I am sick of all the cupboard doors in the kitchen being left open, and I wanted to make you feel like the inconsiderate jerk you are.” (This person would benefit from reading this article and meditating on intent.) Or the other person might say, “Sorry. I’m just not a morning person. I promise I’m more congenial after a cup of coffee—please don’t take it personally.” (This person gets a cookie!)
Tomorrow I’ll have Lucy and Mel guest-star in another post about positive reinforcement vs. punishment, or how we learn the things we learn, and what makes them stick. But for now, this post has gotten a little long, and someone was looking at me with sad-dog eyes until I asked, “Walk?” Got to go; Lucy’s waiting for me by the front door….
Thanks to Mel Bussey for allowing me to use her classes as real-life examples for this post. For more detailed information about actual dog behavior and training, please visit Mel’s excellent website.
A new character has been coming to therapy more and more frequently lately. This customer is pretty smart, I have to admit, and tirelessly observant. But I confess I don’t like this one very much. This is someone who butts into everyone’s sessions and gets in the way of personal lives, to boot. This is a character who listens to everything I say to people in our sessions and whispers in their ear, This won’t work for you. You’re messed up. You’re hopeless. You don’t have what it takes to change. And you’re probably not worth it, anyway.
Maybe by now you’ve recognized the voice of this so-and-so, who isn’t a real person at all and yet is familiar to so many of us: This is the voice of the Harsh Inner Critic.
Many of the brightest, most creative, outwardly-successful people I know are afflicted with a Harsh Inner Critic. These are folks for whom a certain critical acuity is important in their lives and work—constant observation, making fine distinctions, and assessing different results are essential characteristics for all kinds of people from artists to businesswomen to college professors. But these are qualities that have a tendency, when honed too fine, to become destructive.
The acute critic notices and identifies small details. This is a laudable and useful skill. But occasionally something happens to turn the nuanced observations of the acute critic into the blunt opinions of the Harsh Inner Critic, and fine distinctions morph into gross proclamations: This is bad. That was horrible. I am horrible. I am worthless.
We’ve all been encouraged at some time or another to engage in “constructive” criticism. It sounds like an oxymoron, right? But of course what it is is the fine-grained commentary that the acute observer supplies, the kind of observations that can serve as suggestions to make (“construct”) an improvement. Constructive criticism engages and helps you by identifying both the flaw that needs addressing and the inherent skill or strength you have to address that flaw.
“Criticism” as we usually think of it is destructive, not constructive. These are the dolorous appraisals of the Harsh Inner Critic, and they don’t serve to build up or improve anything. The judgments of the Harsh Inner Critic are hyperbolic and cruel, disproportionate to the flaws they address (That’s the worst, This is horrible! I’m an idiot). When the Harsh Inner Critic delivers its opinion all progress stops. The observations of the Harsh Inner Critic are absolute in their devaluation, and because they communicate no faith in a person’s ability to change anything, any hope for positive change is cut off at the knees.
By now you have probably thought of ways your own Harsh Inner Critic makes an appearance in your life. I know mine showed up briefly as I began to write this post—I got stuck for a few moments, and she snarked at me: This post is dumb! No one will like this. Luckily, by this point I have some tricks up my sleeve for defusing my Harsh Inner Critic’s critical stink bombs, and I was able to reinstate the more helpful acute critic. Let me give you some ideas for how you can free yourself from the unhelpful tirades of your Harsh Inner Critic, too:
- Recognize who’s talking. Not sure who’s making those pronouncements about you and your work? Notice the language that inner voice is using. While an acute critic has a flexible and nuanced vocabulary, the Harsh Inner Critic likes absolutes and extremes: Worst/best. Bad/good. In addition to this, the Harsh Inner Critic is drawn to the negative evaluation: Horrible. Terrible. Execrable. (Ok, sometimes the Harsh Inner Critic has a good vocabulary, but it’s not motivational or empowering.)
- Call out the voice. Once you’ve determined it’s the Harsh Inner Critic talking to you, call it out! Take a breath, and say (out loud, if that feels good, or silently if you feel self-conscious) “Harsh Inner Critic, you’re acting like a jerk! You’re being way harder on me than is necessary. Your commentary is mean and disrespectful and the things you say to me aren’t helpful.” Don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade.
- Supply precise language. The key to kicking out the Harsh Inner Critic and putting the acute critic in its place is to diligently replace extreme, condemnatory language with language that accurately describes a problem and its potential solution. For example, earlier I took the spiteful words of my Harsh Inner Critic as a cue to look at what, exactly, wasn’t working for me in my writing. I took pains to identify what I was unhappy with, in careful terms that indicated how I might improve: I notice all my sentences are really long and complicated. I lose track of the thought halfway through most of them, and I don’t want my readers to have to work so hard…or get bored! I might improve this by breaking up my thoughts into smaller chunks.
- Recognize your cues. As you grow more practiced with replacing extreme or absolute criticisms with nuanced observations, you can begin using the sound of the Harsh Critic’s Voice as a sort of automatic cue to engage in critical acuity. What are your Harsh Inner Critic’s favorite terms? Worst? Bad? Crapulous? The moment you first hear these words, use them as a sort of switch to turn on the flexible, detail-and-solution-rich observations of the acute critic. With practice, this switch becomes automatic. With more time and practice, the Harsh Inner Critic is out of a job—the helpful, acute critic has permanently taken its place!
For many of us, the Harsh Inner Critic makes appearances in multiple arenas: in our jobs, when we try to interact with our friends and families, and when we try to master a new skill or practice a longtime hobby. It can be hardy like a weed, popping up in a new area after having been banished from another.
But no matter how loud the Harsh Inner Critic speaks it is not the voice of truth, and it is not invincible. With attention, practice, and purposeful kindness, your Harsh Inner Critic can be made to give way to a constructive, helpful inner voice. Good luck in your efforts, and let me know if I can help.