Operant Conditioning and Me

Today’s post is going to be basic, self observation, self discovery, and I found a new term for my “self”.

I had an extended session with my therapist today, and it was a lot. Somethings to work on specifically in my self, and somethings identified that will hopefully be something I can remain aware of, and back myself out of the corners I put myself in.

Operant Conditioning” is the method of learning by reward and punishment. Gamblers live this conditioning. They loose, win, loose, win etc… In my case, I get some uplifting conversation (the best ones are about hiking, learning photography, and exchanging YouTube videos of songs that speak to us – but I think they also send/receive the wrong intentions – more related to that down further). Then I get left mid conversation with out a reason why, so I naturally (for me) assume I did something wrong, over stepped my bounds, or made them upset somehow. Then I get a little bit more communication, nothing big or deep, and I’m uplifted again. Then silence again, and I wonder what I did again. I am willing to continue this way because the person is important to me, worth the up and down nature of getting to know them again, but it also keeps me very low, and I have to work twice as hard to recover after I really hit the bottom again. The simplest of communication keeps things level, and hopefully progressing to getting to know them (again, but the new them – and me). If we can become real friends again, that would be wonderful, but if I don’t know the current/new them, I can only base my knowledge of them on who I knew before, so I hope one day to get together on a trail, or out somewhere to take pictures, or just to walk a park and learn their story. Maybe that will tell me, we’re better left as “used to be” and move forward with our lives with the knowledge that we’ll be in touch, but that’s all.

So today in my session, there were a lot of tears (on my part, he was fine 🙂 ). Self criticism has always been an issue with me. I used to roll myself around in the mental barbed wire, chew myself out, shut down to those around me, and ultimately made them feel like it was them, not me, that was making life difficult. Along with several other things, this is something I have been working on, steady, for a few months. I am getting better at identifying the times I do this, and learning ways to guide myself through this self criticism, but when you’ve been conditioned to struggle for the rewards, it really drags you back in a hurry. We talked about how the small things in my conversations lift me up to a point I feel fine, I can work on myself, and not have to do extra work to clear my machine (mind) before I can work on my other difficult things. Then we talked about how hard I crash into myself when I’m left hanging, not acknowledged, or given the silent treatment. All of these things are things I turn around in my head until I go into complete “assume” mode and start tearing myself down again. “Did I say something wrong? Did I ask something inappropriate? Did I bring up a sore subject? Did I miss a message that was supposed to be obvious?” (More related to that down further too) Finally, the one that usually does me in the hardest, “Am I making my friend feel like they aren’t important? Am I smothering them by making sure they KNOW they’re important? Should I call them? Should I ask them if I did something wrong? Should I message them less or more? Was I a dick and didn’t realize it?” Down, down I go.

Some of the things I’ve been working on daily is being present. On my hikes, when I catch my mind wondering, dreaming, or making thoughts up from previous instances, I make a conscious effort to let those dreams, thoughts, stories, etc .. pass through, and get back to were I am, what I’m doing, and everything and everyone around me. Sometimes I pause to sit down, relax myself, and just feel what is around me. This usually pulls me back to the here, now, and present reality. It is very important to me, that when I’m ready for love again, that I can be the best person for them that I can be.

Another thing I work on (kind of hard because I don’t have many friends that I can work on this with), is not bringing up things from the past. Just because they enter my mind, doesn’t mean I have to act on them. “Reasons do not have to be causes” (my therapist told me that months ago), and work on yourself “Every Single Day” (John Kim). Work on your mind, learn to like yourself (loving yourself is easier than liking yourself – also John Kim), and work on your body (so they can work together). My body is doing great, weight is staying off, I rarely get very exhausted when hiking (even the hard ones), and I don’t ache from age as much as I used to. Where I am still a work in progress, is my mind. That is the tough one.

When I am feeling okay, working on my mental self isn’t as difficult. When I am having a difficult day, cant’ focus, mind spinning its own “truths”, wondering if I did something wrong, or why I was left mid conversation, makes dealing with my deeper work that much more difficult. I’ve got to clear out all the noise that’s running around (doubt, self criticism, guilt, unanswered questions) before I can start to step back and look at some of my unhealthy, or hurtful habits.

For most of my relationship (circa 2017-2020) I hurt my partner often with off hand comments, observations from previous relationships, or not being present and missing what they were doing, saying, or feeling all together. I never intended to hurt her, it wasn’t intentional, it came from a place of ignorance on my part, and not being in the moment with her. I left her feeling that she wasn’t number one in my life, and ultimately loosing that part of my life to lacking the tools to read what she was telling me (or asking me). Those tools are getting better, but I feel that men (in general), need a little more direction when being asked or told something. We don’t all need it in black and white, but we do need to know what part of that message we’re receiving is the important part, and in what context. Otherwise we can be oblivious to it, miss it all together, or start the vicious cycle of self ridicule and hurtful self talk. It isn’t that we mean to be ignorant of the message, signals, or actions, we just don’t see the emotional ques as well as our partners do.

“Be patient with me, I’m a work in progress” ~ A message I found in Instagram