As a practitioner of Positive Discipline, rewards are not part of my parenting toolbox. But even before I had ever heard of Positive Discipline or read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, something about using rewards for motivation – even on myself – rubbed me the wrong way. Recently I’ve gained some insight into why I don’t reward myself.
Because I’m worthy right now.
In Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home, coauthor Lauren Rosenfeld recounts working with a woman named Hope to declutter her bedroom. After she has completed the task, Hope plans on buying a beautiful, warm comforter set for the room. “Once I’m done decluttering, I think I’ll have earned it,” she says. Lauren asks why Hope feels she doesn’t deserve it now. “Shouldn’t I set a goal and reward myself when I’m done?” Hope asks. Lauren responds that she doesn’t need to earn beauty or warmth. “You don’t have to be more or different or better. You are enough. Right now. And you always have been.”
When I read this passage, I took a deep breath. Suddenly the root of my resistance to rewards was abundantly clear. I am enough, right now.
Because I’m more interested in what I need than in what I deserve.
Rewarding myself for doing well enough conjures up questions in my mind such as: Am I good enough to deserve this? Have I earned it? What if I fail? I don’t find these questions empowering. I’m more interested in clarifying my goals, my priorities, my core values, and my needs and wants. My primary goal is to always align my actions with my core values. Rewards just don’t have a place in the process.
Because it distracts me from my goals.
One of my biggest challenges since having children has been giving enough time and attention to my business. It has always seemed an exercise in futility to commit to spending a certain number of hours per day working on my business, while I was simultaneously doing the highly improvisational and demanding work of taking care of my kids. Following a business seminar last year, I decided to adopt a fresh approach; my new mantra would be “No zero days.” I headed to the dollar store and picked up a calendar and several packages of heart-shaped stickers. Each day I did anything, no matter how tiny, to support or grow my business, I would stick a heart on that day. The intention was to be able to see and feel inspired by all the love I was giving my business. Cute, right? And for a while, it felt really good. It seemed to “work.”
But over time I started to notice something about my heart-covered calendar. I couldn’t allow myself to leave any gaps (“No zero days,” remember?). Each day, I felt uncomfortable until I had done something that permitted me to attach a sticker to the calendar. I started thinking more about the stickers than the actual value of the work I was doing, searching for tasks I could complete quickly rather than the ones that most aligned with my goals. Something that was designed to inspire me and reduce stress was pulling my focus and applying pressure. I’m a grown woman, and a sticker chart was making me feel sad and anxious.
The realization that my heart-covered calendar was, in essence, a rewards system, allowed me to understand why it wasn’t working for me and to release it entirely. Using rewards as motivation frames the task as a chore to suffer through, and frames the reward as desirable. When it comes down to it, the work I do is valuable and enjoyable. Heart-shaped stickers just can’t compete.
Because I’m not interested in having a power struggle with myself.
Rewards systems reflect who holds more power in a relationship. The person with more power grants the rewards (or withholds them) based on the performance of the person with less power. But if I promise myself rewards based on my own performance, I am both the controller and the person being controlled. I’m holding the stick attached to the carrot I’m chasing. It’s like playing a weird, manipulative, psychological game with myself, and it’s a game I’m pretty sure I can’t win.
Because true motivation is intrinsic.
Most people are familiar with the difference between extrinsic motivation (doing something to get a reward) and intrinsic motivation (finding a task valuable in its own right), but there is also a distinction between intrinsic motivation and internal motivation. Over time, extrinsic motivation can become internalized, so that we no longer need the outside pressure to perform. We are now pressuring ourselves from within, operating out of fear or guilt rather than true, intrinsic motivation. The “carrot” we are dangling in front of ourselves might be our own self-worth. We tend to regard self-discipline and drive as positive traits, but determination can take a dark turn and become obligation or compulsion. True motivation is intrinsic. If I can’t find anything within myself that fuels what I’m trying to accomplish, I need to seriously consider why I am doing it, and whether doing it is the best choice.
If not rewards, then what?
I don’t deny myself gifts or treats. I just give them to myself freely, with no guilt and no strings attached. If I want cheesecake, I eat cheesecake, and I don’t make myself jump through any hoops in order to get it. I don’t need to earn food, rest, joy, or comfort. My self-care is not contingent on performance.
When I find myself procrastinating or avoiding a task, I take a moment to figure out what’s driving that avoidance. I try to find the connection between the task at hand and my core values and goals. I don’t necessarily enjoy washing dishes, but I do enjoy a clear counter space and clean dishes. Even something as mundane as dishwashing can be self-rewarding. No stickers necessary.