Book Review: “Self-Hypnosis: Easy Ways to Hypnotize Your Problems Away” by Bruce Goldberg

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This was a frustrating read. But then again, I kind of knew better than to embark upon it. 

Hypnosis is an area of passionate interest for me. One of the main reasons I got into psychology was that my deep interest in the self-help movement had led me to become particularly interested in hypnosis and other naturally altered states of consciousness. 

I’ve been voraciously reading books and articles on hypnosis for years, and I use hypnotic techniques every day in my clinical practice. 

I’m positive I probably came about this book in a bargain bin somewhere and scooped it up because it was cheap and relevant to my interests. 

In it, Dr. Goldberg— a dentist, who also has graduate training in counseling and form training in hypnosis— lays out his view of the fundamentals of hypnosis, and how learning the skill of hypnotizing yourself can be of practical use in your personal development efforts. 

I strongly agree with his basic thesis. Hypnosis is a natural phenomenon that is easily induced— it’s induced quite often by advertisements, politicians, religious leaders, and psychotherapists— and learning how to purposefully enter into trance states can absolutely positively impact our lives. 

For that matter, Dr. Goldberg goes on to make some important, accurate points. Hypnosis is, generally speaking, quite safe, as far as interventions go. 

He points out that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis— i.e., it’s very hard to hypnotize someone without their consent, and basically impossible to make them do something against their will. 

He touches upon the fact that hypnosis works mostly by teaching your brain to intentionally slow down its brainwave activity and enter into the “alpha state,” in which it is easier to learn and alter beliefs and thoughts. 

He points out that an important part of hypnosis is to distract the analytical, conscious mind, so it doesn’t rip apart the suggestions and programming you’re attempting to install in your unconscious mind. 

All fine and good. 

Beyond this, most of the book is comprised of self-hypnotic scripts that Dr. Goldberg offers as templates for you to record and use on yourself. His scripts are pretty standard, as far as hypnosis inductions go. There’s a lot of progressive relaxation— the systematic tensing and relaxing of muscles— and a lot of visualization of stairs and the like. 

Still good, for the most part. 

Then…come his suggestions. 

As Dr. Goldberg gets into the suggestions, or instructions, he suggests repeating after you’ve used the induction (relaxation and focusing) techniques, his book descends into…kind of silliness. 

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the suggestions he offers, I suppose. In fact, they’re all pretty boilerplate. 

Which is kind of the problem. 

Any experienced hypnotherapist will tell you that the challenge with most hypnosis isn’t getting the person to relax, or coming up with clever, unique induction procedures. 

Rather, the challenge with most hypnosis is framing suggestions in such a way as they are not too directive, not too broad nor too specific, and— most importantly— that they don’t do more harm than good. 

This is where Dr. Goldberg’s methods kind of fall apart. 

The reason why you don’t want to be too directive in your hypnotic suggestions is pretty simple. Your brain doesn’t like commands. It just doesn’t.

This is especially true if you’re struggling with a habit of behavior (as, presumably, you are, if you’re attempting to use self-hypnosis as a tool). If you give your brain a command as direct as Dr. Goldman recommends, your brain is likely to respond with a curt, “No. Don’t tell me what to do.” 

Furthermore, one of the quickest ways to bring someone OUT of a state of hypnosis— i.e., to wake up their conscious mind and to invite it to tear apart what you’re doing— is to give the brain a particularly direct command. 

Even if your conscious mind has been lulled into complacency by a competent hypnotic induction, if you start giving it commands, like Dr. Goldberg recommends, your conscious mind is going to wake up in a hurry…and likely receive it as an act of self-protection to start ripping apart the overly directive “suggestions” your ham-handed hypnotist is trying to impart. 

Needless to say, this gets in the way of the whole thing working. 

So, part of my beef with this book is that I don’t think his scripts are, in the end, terribly effective, mostly because they’re so directive with the suggestions, too much do-this-don’t-do-that. 

(That’s another problem I have with his suggestions, by the way— “don’t do that” doesn’t work in hypnotic contexts. Neuropsychological research suggests the brain doesn’t process “don’t” or “no” or “not” particularly well— meaning a command such as “you don’t want to smoke” can easily become “you want to smoke” in your unconscious mind.) 

But the other problem I have with his methods is the age and past-life regressions. 

It’s not just that the research either hasn’t been done or hasn’t particularly supported the notion of age regression in hypnosis. To be honest, I’m not terribly familiar with what the science says about our ability to regress, age-wise, under hypnosis— though I’m highly skeptical of Dr. Goldberg’s claim that every single thing that has ever happened to us exists as a perfect recording in our unconscious minds. 

(In fact, I know for a fact that’s not how memory works— at least normal, non-posttrauamtic memory.) 

It’s more that when you induce a potentially dissociative state in yourself such as hypnosis, and then you start inviting yourself to become a version of you younger than you are…woof. This can be problematic, for a number of reasons. 

I’ll refrain here from going into a spiral about how trauma, traumatic memory, and dissociation all work, but it will suffice to say: if you have a traumatic past, I strongly recommend you do NOT use self-hypnotic techniques to “regress” yourself to a previous age and try to “process” any kind of trauma on your own. Please, please, PLEASE do this with the support and supervision of a trained professional. 

I’m serious. 

The other stuff— Dr. Goldberg’s latter chapters about exploring past and future lives through hypnosis, contacting your “higher self” through hypnosis, and/or literally growing younger or increasing your actual IQ through hypnosis— it will suffice to say, even as a strong proponent of and believer in the power of hypnotic techniques, I am highly skeptical about whether research exists to support these possibilities. 

Dr. Goldberg’s book is frustrating to me because he starts out with a good idea. It’s very good to learn how to naturally alter our state of consciousness. The more we can live and work and exist in the alpha state, the better. I am all for learning to relax and let our conscious minds mellow. I am all for using affirmations to program ourselves to feel better, think better, and behave better. 

It’s BECAUSE all of this is a good things that Dr. Goldberg’s overstatements, broad generalizations, overly directive suggestions, and metaphysical speculation make my kind of shake my head and sigh. 

Learn all you can about hypnosis and self-hypnosis, absolutely. 

But maybe learn it from a different book. 

Beware drama addiction.

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It is ENTIRELY possible to become addicted to drama. 

I know, I know. Everybody SAYS they hate drama. 

But the fact is, many people behave in ways that make it almost impossible for their lives to have less drama in them. 

This is especially true when people are recovering from addiction or trauma. 

One of the things that often happens when people start getting their lives under control is, their lives get kind of quieter. 

There are fewer crises to be managed. 

The crises that do happen, are resolved quicker and neater. 

People find they actually have the skills and tools they need to handle both the practicalities of managing their lives and the emotions that go along with their life situations. 

You’d think this would be a good thing, a relief, after years of hair-on-fire, one-crisis-after-another existence, right? You’d think that this is what success in overcoming addiction or stabilizing your life after trauma is SUPPOSED to look like, right? 

You’d think so, yes.

The thing is, though, when we’ve gotten used to our lives being dramatic or tragic operas of crisis management, a lot of the time our brains don’t quite know how to handle the lack of action. 

It’s not that anybody necessarily LIKES drama. But drama is what our brains have gotten used to. 

What’s more, drama carries with it spikes of adrenaline— that hormone that your sympathetic nervous system produces when it’s time to handle a crisis or perform under pressure. And regular shots of adrenaline, as it turns out…can be kind of addicting. 

When our nervous systems have gotten used to years and years and years of regular shots of adrenaline, to go to an existence where you’re NOT getting your adrenaline fix can be more difficult than you’d think. 

You may be relived that your life isn’t in chaos anymore. 

But your central nervous system may be craving its fix. 

Your brain may be even getting bored. It’s used to stimulation. That’s become its default setting. 

If we’re not realistic about this, your brain WILL attempt to solve that problem…by creating drama. 

Understand: this is not just you making poor choices. 

It’s not a matter of you waking up and saying, “Hmm…how can I make my life more complicated today?” 

It’s a matter of your brain having gotten used to a status quo…and now being nervous that the status quo is no more. 

Your brain may be suspicious of the lack of action and drama. 

Your mind may have associated lack of action and drama with something bad about to happen. 

When you go to see a scary movie, and everything gets all quiet, what happens to your body? 

That’s right: you get tense. Why? 

Because you know you’re seeing a horror movie…and you know in horror movies periods of calm and quiet are usually interrupted by jump scares and horrifying, starting images. 

If you’ve lived a live of chaos, trauma, and crisis, and now you’re in the phase of your life where you’ve recovered enough to establish some stability and calm…don’t be surprised to feel your anxiety level rising. 

That’s just your brain thinking you’re still in a horror movie, and waiting anxiously for that jump scare. 

The trick is, recognizing what’s happening to you…and not trying to relieve that feeling of anxiety by creating that jump scare yourself. 

Because your brain is bored is NOT a good reason to go out looking for drama. 

Again: few people consciously do this. It’s more of an impulsive, instinctive thing. 

Things will go smoothly for awhile, and then, out of nowhere, you find yourself weirdly, passively sabotaging your progress. 

You find yourself not taking your meds. Not working your steps. Not going to meetings. Not doing your therapy exercises. Not getting enough sleep. ‘

Not doing the things, in other words, that keep you healthy and stable. 

Notice when these things are happening. 

It’s not that you have to do everything perfectly. You can’t, and you won’t— and that’s neither the goal nor the expectation. 

Just stay on the lookout for your brain trying to sneak more drama or action into your life. 

And be prepared to just say no. 

 

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“Blame” versus “Responsibility.”

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Few concepts get more confused and mangled than those of “blame” and “responsibility.” 

Which is a bummer, because they’re very different, conceptually and practically. 

“Blame” isn’t a concept that I’ve ever gotten much mileage out of. When you’re in a mess, the question of “who got us into this mess” is often a more or less academic one. 

For the most part, I don’t CARE who got me into a mess if I’m in a mess. 

I’m more interested in how I’m going to get OUT of that mess. 

“Blame” almost never helps me with that question. For that matter, I dare say “blame” almost never helps anyone out of any mess they’re in. 

Most often, I see “blame” tossed around as a way of making someone feel better— or worse— about the mess that they’re in. But it’s almost never a useful tool of actually getting OUT of a mess. 

Only the concept of “responsibility” can do that. 

In fact, it’s hard to get OUT of a mess without engaging the concept of “responsibility.” 

What’ the difference between the two concepts? 

I don’t need to know, or care, who is to blame for a mess that I am intent on getting out of. 

But if I want out of that mess, I have to accept responsibility for getting out of it. 

It doesn’t mater, at that moment, who is to blame; and often, trying to assign blame is a distraction from accepting responsibility for getting out of a mess. 

It’s as if, if we’re not to blame for getting into a mess, we don’t have to assume responsibility for getting out of it. 

Not true. 

If you want something to change, you have to accept responsibility for the outcome you want…and to let go, at least for a little bit, of placing blame. 

There’s simply no other way. 

It may not be our fault that we’re addicted. Maybe tobacco companies and poor role models and peers and traumatic childhoods contributed to our addiction. There are surely many culprits to blame for having developed an addiction. 

But the only way out of addiction is to accept responsibility for ending it. 

It’s certainly not your fault if you were abused. When we are victimized, it is always and only the fault of the person behaving aggressively toward us. Nobody asks to be abused. The blame for abuse goes squarely on the perpetrator. 

But the only way out of living a life in response to trauma is to accept responsibility for living a different kind of life. 

It may not be our fault that we’re depressed. Brain chemistry, genetics, and circumstances may well have ganged up on us to produce the emotional and behavioral patterns that we call “depression.” 

But the only way out of depression is to accept responsibility for feeling and behaving in new ways. 

There are absolutely cases where we are definitively not to blame for the circumstances we found ourselves in. It is absolutely the case that we can, and do, get dealt crappy hands in life. 

It happens, and it’s not our fault. 

But blaming doesn’t change it. 

Only accepting responsibility for changing it opens the door to something new and different. 

“Responsibility” literally means “able to respond.” If we stay stuck in blame, rather than accepting responsibility, we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to respond to a situation. 

It’s as if we’re waiting for someone else to bail us out. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m through waiting on anyone else to bail me out. 

I refuse to get caught up in blame. It’s a waste of time and energy— and I don’t have time or energy to spare. 

Neither do you. 

 

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Book Review: “Overcoming Procrastination,” by Neil Fiore.

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Fun fact: this book by psychotherapist Neil Fiore on “Overcoming Procrastination” has sat on my bookshelf for well over ten years.

I probably stumbled across it closer to fifteen years ago or so.

Here’s how long this book has been around: in the examples of how someone might procrastinate, not once is social media mentioned. 

I might have procrastinated reading it. Just a bit. 

Fiore seeks to establish procrastination not just as a self-defeating habit; he wants to understand the emotional drives that underlie the tendency to procrastinate.

What he proposes is that chronic procrastinators are not trying to frustrate the people around them or harm their own careers or lives; they’re actually responding to feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, shamed, or scared. 

Fiore goes on to suggest that procrastinators have a tendency to strongly identify their worth with their work. Thus, if they do a job poorly and receive criticism, it’s as if their very person is being shamed and rejected.

This leads a procrastinator to put off starting a project, because they fear that potential for rejection and judgment. 

They’ve raised the stakes so high in their own mind that even getting started on a project feels like a risk to their very sense of self. 

Fiore goes on to explain that procrastinators tend to think of projects in terms of what will eventually be required to complete the ENTIRE thing, and to conceptualize these tasks as monumental undertakings that will rob them of any opportunities to play, connect with friends, or otherwise experience relaxation or pleasure. 

Is it any wonder, then, that viewing the world through such lenses would result in anything BUT a chronic proclivity to procrastinate? 

Procrastinators may fear failure, because if their work equals their worth, failing at work means failing at life. 

Procrastinators may fear success, because the reward for good work is often more work, and they don’t feel they can handle the extra burden successfully completing a project may bring. 

Procrastinators may even use the habit as a passive way of asserting some sort of control over a situation— or a life— over which they feel very little control. 

Procrastinators tend to talk to themselves in “shoulds” and “have to’s”, language that can’t help but reinforce the idea that they’re being forced to perform tasks that they’d prefer not to, given their druthers. 

In other words, if someone is procrastinating, it’s likely because they feel powerless, intimidated, and anxious— not because they’re trying to inconvenience or infuriate anybody. 

So what’s to be done about any of it? 

Fiore has a few ideas. 

Among the most important parts of his “Now Habit” system of combatting procrastination is the purposeful scheduling of “guilt free play.”

Fiore states that overcoming procrastination hinges upon the procrastinator being assured that the project in front of them will not eat up every spare moment available for pleasure and non-work activities. In devising a time management system, Fiore advises one to first pencil in non-negotiable blocks for non-work activities, to set one’s mind at ease that their projects are not about to take over their lives. 

Next, Fiore emphasizes breaking down the projects one has on one’s plate, deemphasizing the ultimate deadlines, and instead working backwards from those deadlines to figure out a series of potential starting points. 

Fiore says that, by emphasizing where, when, and how to START a project encourages what he calls “3D thinking” about them, putting the emphasis on the practical, do-able here-and-now/near future, rather than the intimidating end result existing out there in distant deadline-land. 

Fiore emphasizes the necessity of the procrastinator talking to themselves in terms of choice and commitment, rather than obligation. He says that, even if we’re going to make the choice to procrastinate, we need to do so consciously and like adults: we need to either choose to do the thing, or choose to not do the thing and accept the consequences of not dong the thing. 

If we want to avoid doing the thing, that’s okay— but we need to own it as a choice we’re making (that comes with a price tag)…not a position we’re being forced into. 

Fiore advances an interesting notion of “doing the work of worrying.” What he means by this is, if we’re going to worry (a frequent driver of procrastination), let’s at least make it PRODUCTIVE worrying: let’s ask ourselves what the very worst is that might happen, and let’s come up with action plans to actually HANDLE the worst that might happen, if it does happen. 

Fiore also follows in the tradition of last week’s book, Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” by emphasizing the need to associate positive experiences with getting in productive periods of work— i.e., make pleasurable experiences rewards for making progress and putting in good periods of work…as opposed to DELAYING pleasurable experiences until the ENTIRE thing is done. 

(If you delay pleasurable experiences until after the entire project is done, you’re far, far more likely to say “screw it” and indulge in the pleasant experience as a means of procrastination, as opposed to using it as a reward for having made a little progress.)

Fiore advocates a time management system he cheekily calls the “Unschedule,” which has us fitting 30 minute increments of quality work between pre-scheduled periods of play and recreation. In effect, the “Unschedule” challenges us to “fit in” our work. It’s almost a reverse psychology thing: instead of work being the set in stone thing and play being the thing we’re trying to squeeze in, make PLAY the priority and SEE IF you can fit in the work, thirty minutes at a time. 

Fiore also discusses the usefulness of entering the “flow state,” which is essentially using relaxation exercises to take the focus away from past frustrations or future anxieties and focus on the practical, do-able task right here, in front of you, right now.  

Overall, Fiore’s approach to managing procrastination focuses on identifying the cognitions— self-talk and beliefs— that fuel procrastination, and hacking away at those cognitions in cognitive-behavioral fashion.

In the end, his technique is ultimately all about managing anxiety, which he more or less views as the main culprit behind procrastination— i.e, we procrastinate because we’re anxious that work will take over our life, we’re anxious about failure, we’re anxious about success, we’re anxious about our ability to do it in the first place. 

I think Fiore hits it on the nose when he talks about how unhealthily and unhelpfully we frequently talk to ourselves. Many, many people have come to the conclusion that the only way they can motivate themselves to take action is through pressure and threats, and it just ain’t so— pressure and threats, either from the outside or from our own minds tend to have the opposite effect of motivation, i.e., procrastination and immobilization. 

I think Fiore’s ideas are all sound, and learning to communicate with yourself more compassionately and effectively is definitely a place to start when combatting procrastination.

The only glitch I find with his system is that he conceptualizes procrastination almost exclusively as an anxiety-driven defensive behavior…and while that’s true for a lot of people, I think there is a subset of people for whom that might be only partially true. 

I know I, for example, procrastinate not only out of anxiety— for me procrastination is also, in large part, borne out of my difficulty managing time; which, in turn, is a difficulty associated with my ADHD. 

“Time” is simply a concept I have a hard time wrapping my brain around; thus, there are plenty of instances in which I’m not (consciously, at least) emotionally blocked from doing the thing, or intimidated about doing the thing, or equating my worth with my ability to do the thing…I’m just not appreciating the practical steps that need to be taken in order to realistically get the thing done. 

Procrastination might be emotionally driven a lot of the time; but there’s also a skill component to time management that a lot of people just have a practical problem with. 

That said, I think Fiore’s book really hits the nail on the head in many ways. 

Understanding our emotional blocks to doing things that are within our capability to do is incredibly important to our ability to succeed and achieve. 

I think focusing on starting, rather than finishing; prioritizing play; and learning how to talk to ourselves in the language of choice and commitment, are all incredibly useful real-world skills for almost everybody. 

You matter. Full stop.

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One of our most basic human needs is to know that we matter. 

That our lives mean something. 

That our needs are important. 

That seems kind of obvious, but the truth is, many of us have conflicting feelings about the simple concept of, “I matter.” 

Many of us have been told— either explicitly or implicitly— that we’re not, in fact, particularly important. 

Sometimes we’ve been told it’s wrong or selfish to consider ourselves important. 

For some of us, we’ve gotten messages from our religious traditions that we should put ourselves last and others first— which  we’ve then taken to mean we must not matter. 

For others, the idea that we matter, that we are fundamentally important, is kind of intimidating. Because if we accept the idea that “we matter,” then we’d necessarily have to treat ourselves with more respect and restraint than we’re used to. 

Still others have become so frustrated with their own behavior over time that they’ve developed strong negative opinions about themselves. Their self-esteem— literally the esteem in which we hold ourselves— has taken so many hits, that the very concept of them “mattering” has become less important than the fact that they are angry with and disappointed in themselves. 

Most human beings I’ve ever met have had, at the very least, a complicated relationship with the concept of, “I matter.” 

Many people are afraid that if they paused for a moment to consider the fact that they matter, that they are fundamentally important, that they might be disapproved of by others. 

After all, isn’t it a big arrogant to assert, without qualification, that “I matter?” 

For that matter, who are we to assert that “I matter” without first doing something to PROVE that you matter? (Notice the connotation this has: we only matter IF we do something to EARN that fundamental value.) 

I’m here to tell you that it is neither arrogant, nor presumptuous, nor obnoxious to assert your fundamental value and importance. 

I’m here to tell you you don’t need to perform or otherwise “earn” the “privilege” of mattering. 

I’m here to tell you that if you are alive, if you are reading these words, if you are a human being with a brain, a central nervous system, and an emotional life, that you matter. 

How can we shake all of these complicated, negative associations we have to the concept of “I matter?” 

How can we come to peace with our fundamental value and importance? 

We have to realize that much of the consternation we experience around the idea of “I matter” is simply programming. 

Programming is usually nothing more than messages that have been repeated, over, and over, and over again. 

It doesn’t matter if the messages are true, useful, or kind. 

It doesn’t even particularly matter if we’re actually LISTENING to those messages very closely. 

if a message gets repeated, over and over and over again, we tend to internalize it. 

And make no mistake: there are lots and lots and LOTS of people, institutions, and industries out there in the world who have vested interests in programming you with the mantra “I don’t matter.” 

Advertisers LOVE it when you think you don’t matter— because then they can sell you stuff to make you feel better. 

Some romantic partners prefer you to not have TOO high or stable self-esteem— because people with high, stable self-esteem tend to be harder to manipulate and control. 

Authorities, from parents to the government, often prefer that you not be TOO convinced you have fundamental value— because then you might decide you’re not so much in need of their guidance and resources. 

A fundamental part of your recovery from addiction, a fundamental part of your recovery from anxiety, a fundamental part of your recovery from depression or trauma, is to accept that you have value. 

You having value; you having worth; you fundamentally MATTERING is the cornerstone of building the motivation and the skills to improve your life. 

What has been programmed, can be counter-programmed. 

What has been learned can be un-learned. 

But you’re going to have to take the risk of saying— and potentially believing— two little words: 

I matter. 

 

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The terror– and necessity– of letting ourselves be known.

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A particularly difficult part of many peoples’ recovery is taking the risk of allowing ourselves to be known. 

Most people spend an awful lot of time hiding their true selves. 

Most of us have received lots and lots and LOTS of messages over the years about how we are SUPPOSED to behave. 

We’ve been bludgeoned with “should” after “should” after “should” when it comes to our speech and behavior. 

And most of us— especially those of us who have experienced trauma or abuse— have gotten very, very good at putting up a convincing front when it comes to who we are. 

(Some survivors of extreme developmental trauma have become so good at putting up a convincing front that their personalities have seemed to “split” into different “parts,” the most extreme variation of which is diagnosed as Dissociative Identity Disorder.)

The thing is, when we need help— when we need support putting our lives back together after trauma, or when we need to lift ourselves out of an addiction, or when we need to keep our heads above the water of depression— we often need to drop the front. 

It’s hard for anybody to help us, either emotionally or behaviorally, if we’re unwilling to show them who we really are and what we really need.

I know many therapists— myself included— who have been frustrated and stymied when a patient walks into their office, intent on keeping their defensive shields intact. Intent on giving the therapist what they think the therapist wants to hear. 

Intent on being their “best” selves, the self that they think will get them approval and acceptance…rather than their real selves. 

As long as those defensive shields stay intact, very little work gets done. 

It’s not the facade of you that needs the help. 

It’s the real you, underneath that facade, behind that part, beneath that bubbly or surly exterior, that needs to recover and heal. 

If I can’t see that you, I can’t help you. 

If your recovery or therapy group can’t see that real you, they can’t help you. 

If you can’t see and accept that real you— vulnerabilities, imperfections, and all— you can’t even help you. 

The thing about these covers, these facades that we wear all the time, is: most of the time they are unnecessary. 

Most of the time these facades and covers aren’t keeping us safe in the way we think they are. 

We think they’ll help us not get hurt. They don’t. 

We think they’ll help protect us from difficult feelings and words. They won’t. 

We think that if we keep distance between our real selves and the problems we’re having, maybe we can keep those problems at arm’s length. 

Doesn’t work. 

To heal, we have to let ourselves be known. 

We have to let down our shields. 

We have to let others see us. See our struggle. See our suffering. 

And, yes, see our failings. 

The upside? 

If we take the risk of letting ourselves be known— really known— we can also embrace our strengths. 

We can embrace our power. (Yes, you do have power…no matter how it feels.) 

We can start to enhance, in a real way, our resources. (Yes, you do have resources…no matter how it feels.) 

We can finally, finally, start to heal. 

(Yes, you can heal…no matter how it feels.) 

You don’t have to let yourself be totally known, all at once, to everybody you meet. You should treat self-disclosure just like any sensitive matter— you should disclose and trust intelligently, carefully, intentionally. 

Letting yourself be known doesn’t have to be a black and white, all or nothing proposition. 

But it does need to happen. 

You can’t heal if “you” don’t show up for the process.

The risk is worth it. 

 

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52 Self-Help Books in 2019 Project, Week 4: “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor

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“Don’t Shoot The Dog” is Karen Pryor’s 1984 book laying out the fundamentals of operant behavioral conditioning for non-scientists, with an emphasis on practical applications in the everyday world. 

Like most of the books I’m reviewing in the “52 Self-Help Books in 2019” project, I’ve had this paperback on my shelf forever. I think I came across it in a thrift store (by the way, guys, thrift stores are absolute gold mines of secondhand self-help paperbacks for, like, a quarter apiece). I remember being enticed and intrigued by the cover blurb, a quote of praise from none other than one of the most badass American psychologists ever, B.F. Skinner. 

B.F. Skinner was one of the most fascinating figures in American psychology. At a time when clinical psychology was dominated by the psychodynamic theories of Freud, which attributed most human behavior to unconscious sexual and aggressive drives, Skinner sought to get more practical and hands-on in explaining why we do what we do. Skinner strongly believed that, insofar as we can’t directly observe, say, the id, ego, or superego, they weren’t the most useful things to study and speculate about. 

Behavior, however, is almost always observable and often precisely quantifiable. Skinner thus centered his experimental efforts on what happens to an animal during and immediately after behavior occurs, and the impact those happenings have on the potential for that behavior to occur again. His work evolved into a uniquely American approach called behaviorism, which, as its name implies, concerns itself with the prediction and control of behavior. 

In “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” Pryor, an animal (and people) trainer, sets out to explain to her audience how they might practically apply the principles of behavioral psychology in their everyday lives. She points out that we’re frequently attempting to influence the behavior of the animals around us— including other people— and that there’s nothing inherently manipulative or exploitative about this; it’s just the way society works. 

We want our spouses, our kids, our subordinates (or supervisors), our pets, and almost every other living thing around us to do certain things and refrain from doing other things. Thus, why animals do what they do, and what we can do to influence them, is a very practical matter to understand. 

Pryor points out that most people, in trying to influence others, clumsily rely upon variations of punishment. We yell; we sulk; we withhold; we lash out; all in response to behavior that has already happened, in hopes that we can keep that behavior from happening again. 

Alternatively, we tend to rely on variations of bribery— promising payoffs to behavior that hasn’t yet happened yet, but we want to happen— hoping that we can induce the people and animals around us to do something we’d prefer. 

Both punishment and bribery, Pryor maintains, have absolutely lousy track records, both in the laboratory and real life. 

The problem with punishment is largely that it happens after behavior has occurred (in the case of the criminal justice system, often times months of years after the fact). Similarly, the problem with bribery is that it happens before behavior has occurred. In both cases, we’re counting on the organism in question to connect, in their minds, the punishment or bribery with behavior that is not currently happening. 

The thing is, every scrap of research we have on how behavior works tells us, that’s not how effective conditioning happens. 

Effective conditioning happens when the organism that is behaving can alter currently occurring behavior in response to the good thing or bad thing that it is evoking. 

Thus: if you want punishment to stick— it needs to happen WHILE the behavior is happening.

Similarly, if you want reinforcement to stick— it needs to happen WHILE the behavior is happening. 

There needs to be no question, in the organism’s nervous system, what behavior the good thing or bad thing they’re experiencing is in response to. 

Reinforcement or punishment, in other words, need to carry INFORMATION to the animal about whether they should keep doing what they’re CURRENTLY doing— not whether they should do something in the future or whether they should have done something in the past. 

Everybody with me? 

Pryor goes on the note that, between reinforcement and punishment, it is reinforcement that is by far the more effective conditioner. The research establishes that it is far, far more effective (not to mention, usually more practical, ethical, and pleasant) to condition behavior through reinforcement than through punishment. 

Pryor then spends the rest of her concisely written book laying out the principles of effective conditioning via reinforcement. As it turns out, there are rules for how and why reinforcement works— which very few parents, bosses, or pet owners have troubled themselves to learn, as it turns out. 

Pryor introduces us to the concept of “stimulus control.” There are certain reinforcers that are “unconditioned stimuli,” things that animals tend to naturally like. Treats and attention are examples of unconditioned stimuli— i.e., stimuli that need no conditioning for an animal to crave or enjoy. 

However, it’s not always practical to hand out treats and belly rubs every time you want to reinforce a behavior. The solution to this is to pair, via classical conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus with a “conditioned stimulus”— i.e., making a nose, giving a hand signal, flashing a light, or something else the organism can easily register every time you offer up the unconditioned stimulus. 

Soon you’ll find the organism responding to the conditioned stimulus as readily as it responded to the unconditioned stimulus— and, viola, you’ve established stimulus control. 

Now, you can reinforce a behavior you want to encourage while it’s actually happening via your conditioned stimulus. That is, when your cat is doing what you want it to do, you don’t have to give it a treat right then; you can use your cool little clicker, the sound of which you’d already linked to treats. 

The research tells us that, for whatever reason, once animals make the link in their heads between the unconditioned stimulus (treats) and the conditioned stimulus (clicker), they’ll respond to the conditioned stimulus (clicker) just as readily as the unconditioned stimulus (treats). 

This leads us to the concept of behavioral “shaping.” As it turns out, we can’t always get an animal to do exactly what we want it to do, so we can reinforce it for doing what we want. The solution to this is to reward the animal for getting closer and closer to the behavior we want, and reinforcing each step along the way with our conditioned stimulus. 

As you reinforce the baby steps, the animal gets closer and closer to doing what you want it to do— all without expecting too much of it at any given time. Viola: behavior shaping. 

The research shows that behavior shaping with reinforcement via conditioned stimuli speeds up learning exponentially…and is way, way, WAY more effective than bribery or punishment will ever be. 

Pryor tells us about “variable schedules of reinforcement.” All this means is that, in teaching an animal a new behavior via reinforcement, you don’t need to reinforce EVERY correct response after awhile. It’s good to mix it up— keep reinforcing correct responses, but instead of reinforcing every single one, vary the intervals between reinforcement. 

This will keep the animal interested and energetic in its responses, insofar as it never knows when, exactly, the treats are coming. 

As it turns out, animals that are reinforced every time tend to become lazy and complacent— their motivation dips as they realize they’ve figured this puzzle out. 

Pryor offers practical tips for behavior shaping, and most of them boil down to more or less common sense. Keep your expectations within range of the animal’s capability. Try to teach only one part of a behavior at a time, so the animal doesn’t get confused. Know where you’re going, so when the animal learns what you want it to learn you’re not scrambling to figure out what to teach them next. Be willing to be flexible and responsive to what the animal is actually doing, rather than what you wish it was doing. Be consistent and patient, try to end training sessions on a high/encouraging note, and don’t be afraid to go back to basics with the animal when you need to. 

In one of my favorite bits, Pryor explains what she calls “The Training Game,” which you can do with your friends. Send one friend out of the room, designate a “trainer,” and decide what you want to train the subject to do. Have the subject return to the room and start doing stuff; reinforce the subject (with something like a bell or a whistle) when the subject gets closer to what you want them to do, thus “reinforcing” them. See how long it takes you to “shape” the behavior of the subject, using only reinforcement. 

(If you’ve ever played the “warmer…warmer…colder…colder…warmer…warmer…HOT!” game with someone— that’s a variant of The Training Game. Who knew you were ALREADY using behavior shaping via reinforcement, just like a real behavioral psychologist?!?)

Pryor wraps up her book withs some tips on how to condition an animal OUT of behavior they’re doing that you don’t want them to do, and it’s an interesting collection of techniques. 

Turns out, you can train an animal to perform a different behavior that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior; or you can reinforce the animal for doing anything BUT the undesirable behavior; or, perhaps most cleverly, you can actually condition the animal to perform the undesirable behavior on cue from…then just never give the cue. 

So…what’s the bottom line here? 

I very much believe in positive reinforcement. I completely buy Pryor’s contention that it works way, way better than bribery, punishment, or even negative reinforcement (introducing a negative stimulus that the animal can make go away by performing the behavior you want). 

If we lived in a world that was completely and only governed by the power of positive reinforcement, I’d be all on board. 

The problem is: we don’t always have access to things other organisms find reinforcing. 

Without access to treats, you can’t condition an animal to a conditioned stimulus. 

Without access to a conditioned stimulus, you can’t reinforce as a behavior is occurring. 

Seriously, think of more than two things you can use to reinforce an animal. You basically have food and attention. Can you think of more than that? I can’t off the top of my head. 

Now, think of more than two things you can use to condition a human. You have food, maybe attention, MAYBE sex. And you certainly can’t use all three of those with any given human you want to condition. 

I have no quibble with the behavioral science that Pryor is describing. I think the principles of operant conditioning and reinforcement theory are important for every human to understand. Breaking free of our reliance on punishment and bribery is a highly desirable outcome for MOST people who want to influence behavior or any animal, human or pet. 

That said: you’re going to have to get creative and observant with those reinforcers. 

“Don’t Shoot the Dog” is a quick read, and Pryor is a very straightforward and conversational writer. It’s a good book. 

Its only constraints are the constraints of reinforcement theory itself. 

Welcome to the real world.