While pain is the energy that moves us toward change, the absence of pain isn’t enough to sustain it. This is one of the factors that makes change so hard: we experience the lack of pain as relief, as a kind of balance or homeostasis. We tend to rest there; we’re comfortable again.
We take a few pills, and our pain decreases. We see a therapist once or twice, and we don’t go back. Many of us aren’t really that interested in change. We just want a rescue from pain.
Pleasure is what I think is on the other side of relief. In order to move us from pain to relief to change, human beings need regular, positive reinforcement. We need to really feel that our effort is giving us something new and different than just relief; it’s creating a welcome, desired difference. And that difference needs to be sustained in order for us to trust our effort is working. We need positive, consistent reinforcement of our efforts. In other words, rewarding ourselves keeps the balance tipped in the right emotional direction.
Take weight loss, for example. Many of us know that we want to have smaller, lighter bodies, but that it takes a great deal of effort to change our food intake. Most of us can create some small amount of weight loss, generating a sense of relief, but if we don’t see regular, sustaining difference, we lose our energy. This is part of the argument among weight loss professionals: should clients weigh themselves daily? On the one hand, small amounts of loss may be visible from day to day, creating a positive reward. On the other hand, not seeing the desired difference can steal motivation fast.
Many of us who try to lose weight give up our efforts when the scale is stalled. We haven’t been able to get the reward we need to sustain our effort. The same holds true for other habits of body and mind, like smoking or drinking. If we don’t constantly work to boost our sense of pleasure and reward for our new behavior, relief will not be enough to keep us there.
If you are attempting a change process this year, and really want to make it work, make sure you have personal rewards built in to your efforts. What is it that gives you a healthy sense of pleasure? Make a list and figure out how you can add those activities, things, and experiences into your life as rewards for your sustained effort. When you see the change you want, focus on how that change feels in your mind and body, and then create a small, reinforcing reward. It’s what keeps our minds moving forward on that narrow, rocky road of personal change.