Most of us have heard of the saying that from crisis comes opportunity. Another way of putting this is to acknowledge that crisis and problems are often “growth experiences”. But how do we grow? What is the process by which we improve ourselves? We can focus on increasing our positive qualities, but eventually we have to also focus on eliminating or reducing our negative qualities. This is going to involve confrontation and discomfort. None of us like to face our flaws.
Therapists as a group are sometimes themselves uncomfortable with this process. So many clients struggle with the harm that overly negative, critical environments can cause. A child’s self-esteem, their sense of themselves as worthwhile, can often be severely damaged. Much of the reparative work of therapy is about changing the negative beliefs about ourselves that toxic criticism can cause. Children do much better in situations where they are loved, praised, encouraged to develop talents, and lovingly corrected in small doses. In this way they are able to develop their character and personality as fully as possible into adulthood.
But can we as adults continue to develop and grow if we use only positive reinforcement? Is this method, which is so important in childhood, enough later on? Yes, and no, and yes. The answer varies greatly depending on the individual. Yes, it is enough, especially if we have damage that needs healing. Growth doesn’t allow for skipped steps. If we have deep scars from childhood, these need healing so that we fill in gaps that were missed. Yes, it is the best method, especially if we have a tendency toward what the church used to call scrupulosity, which means a tendency toward being painfully unsure as to the rightness of one’s actions. In these situations, starting a program of voluntary self-criticism is not likely to be healthy. As in most situations, moderation and balance are important.
However, assuming that we are feeling relatively whole and undamaged (or at least healed), positive reinforcement alone may not be enough. It may be time to try a different method. There is a big difference between feeling damaged by toxic criticism that we cannot avoid, and choosing to take an honest look at ourselves. Obviously the key element is choice. Just as we wouldn’t choose to undertake a physical conditioning program if we’re feeling physically weak, we won’t choose to work on our emotional growth if we’re feeling shaky in that area. But if we’re feeling fairly strong, we may be ready to take a hard look at ourselves and ask, “What quality about myself would I most like to change? Which of my behaviors or personality traits causes the most trouble for me or for others in my life?”
Once we ask the question and identify the behavior we would like to remove, then we need to focus on noticing the behavior and finding a substitute. The substitute behavior may include doing nothing, or its equivalent. For example, if we’ve decided that we have a tendency to gossip, the substitute behavior may be remaining silent or walking away when gossip starts. An important feature in a program of reducing negative behaviors is going to be a periodic, preferably daily, review of how we’ve done. For most of us, this is not pleasant. Bad habits tend to be remarkably entrenched, and a daily review can feel discouraging, especially at first. If we keep at it, though, it’s very likely that over time we will find that the negative behavior is decreasing, and probably that something positive is taking its place.
As a matter of fact, this replacement of negative with positive is a wonderful consequence of being brave enough to face one’s faults. After all, every bad habit or negative quality takes up a certain amount of “space” in our lives, and when we remove those, we make room for more positive, more growthful qualities. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living”, and the Judeo-Christian religious heritage calls for examination of conscience, atonement and continued development, both behaviorally and spiritually. Scott Peck began his book “The Road Less traveled” with the words, “Life is difficult”. It is, at times, but the process of growing through life can be tremendously rewarding.