Taking Back Your Life Means Changing Your Actions

Family members often say it feels unfair that they have to change in order to get their lives back from addiction. So let’s just acknowledge at the outset that it isn’t fair that you’re the one who has to do the work, especially because you’ve been doing most (or all) of the work in your relationship with your husband/wife/son/daughter who has an addiction. While it isn’t fair, we can do things to make our work more effective.

Over time you’ve probably found that yelling, nagging, arguing and bargaining hasn’t worked to change your loved one’s drinking. Despite your best arguments, cutting remarks and deal-making abilities that would make many government leaders envious, these actions rarely work to effect long-term change in our loved ones’ drinking or drug use.

Do you ever wonder ‘Why’? Why don’t these strategies work? Why doesn’t our husband/wife/son/daughter care enough about us to stop drinking? Why can’t s/he see how his/her behavior is affecting us?

For the rest of this post we’ll uncover the reasons why these strategies are ineffective and discover some basic and very important principles. These are principles that have the power to change your life and your loved one’s drinking if applied correctly. How are we going to do that? By learning about and applying some well-researched principles of behavioral change.

Reinforcement AKA Rewards

Reinforcement refers to our tendency to engage in behaviors that rewarded. We are more likely to take actions leads to consequences we like. Years of research has demonstrated the power of rewards on our behavior. Just think about all the things people will do for money – an incredibly important reward to many people!

When we learn new actions, we often learn them through reinforcement. Think about learning to tie your shoes as a kid or teaching your child to wash the dishes. We typically use rewards to help us learn new actions. Saying things like “that’s right!” “good job!” or giving a gentle pat on the back and a smile may be rewards you received when learning to tie your shoes, or rewards you used to help your child learn how to do the dishes.

Reinforcement is a more effective way to get others (and ourselves) to engage in specific actions. Let’s say you want your son to help wash the dishes after dinner. You can try yelling and screaming, but that will probably result in misery for both of you. You don’t like yelling. Your son gets upset. The dishes may or may not get done.

Instead of yelling, you could try offering your son the chance to stay up a little later or earn money towards a toy he wants. This option is more likely to result in the dishes getting washed, your son feeling better about doing the dishes and you feel better that you didn’t have to yell or scream to get the dishes done.

There are certain factors to pay attention to when using rewards to get the best results:

  • A reward is only a reward if the person receiving it actually desires it. Rewards don’t work if the person getting it doesn’t want it, or if it isn’t something s/he wants. Letting your son listen to the latest episode of your favorite podcast as a reward may have very little impact unless he finds listening to your favorite podcast rewarding.
  • Any situation, behavior or words can be rewards! Many times people think of rewards as objects, money or favors. These can be used as rewards, but they are not the only options for rewards. Your positive attention (listening, supporting, loving, etc.), words of encouragement and affection are powerful rewards for your loved ones! A hug is free and so is “I love you.” Rewards do not have to be ‘things’, but can be anything as long as it is desired by the person you are rewarding.
  • Alcohol and drugs are rewarding. They are so rewarding that the even the negative consequences of alcohol or drugs are not powerful enough, in and of themselves, to stop someone from drinking. We have to come up with rewards that are as rewarding or more rewarding than alcohol. Or, the total amount of the rewards have to offset the reward of alcohol (multiple rewards vs. alcohol).

 

Alcohol and substances are used for many reasons; one of the most powerful reasons is the physiological effects of alcohol and drugs. Alcohol produces relaxation (even if someone appears energized on alcohol it is most likely having that effect by impairing/relaxing certain portions of the brain), Ecstasy produces euphoria, and other drugs have different positive physiological effects on the person using the substance. Addiction is a tricky condition to treat because the substances produce powerful rewards. However, not all is lost.

There are many situations, events, objects, and actions that can be used as rewards to compete with alcohol or drugs. For example, going for a walk or a run can produce energy, relaxation or other positive effects that alcohol and drugs produce. Fully engaging with loved ones or in sober activities/hobbies can produce feelings of pleasure and self-confidence. Although it can be difficult to find one sober reward that is as powerful as alcohol or drugs, the total amount of the rewards can be equal or more than the rewards of drinking or using.

Never underestimate the power of small and consistent rewards in changing behavior. Your positive attention when your loved one is sober can, over time and applied consistently, have the potential to increase your loved one’s sobriety or at least the amount of time s/he is sober with you.

An Example of Using Rewards with an Addicted Loved One

Joe, a heavy drinker, often started drinking after he got home from work as a way to unwind and relax from a long day at work. Mary knew that Joe experienced a lot of stress at his job and that drinking was his way to cope with this work stress. She also knew that once Joe started drinking, it would turn into an affair that went on all night and would result in an argument that ended with her sleeping in their daughter’s room.

One evening before Joe started drinking, Mary surprised him by arranging a babysitter so she could take him to get a massage. Although Joe still drank after he got home from the massage, he drank much less than usual. On another night, Mary arranged for Joe’s sober friend, Bill, to come to dinner, knowing that Joe would not drink in front of Bill. That night Joe and Bill laughed and reminisced until late in the evening. So late, in fact, that Joe didn’t even drink that night. Through careful planning, Mary was able to arrange activities for Joe that were more rewarding than alcohol, at least for those few hours. While this isn’t a complete solution, this is a step in the right direction. Through additional time and attention, Mary was able to use rewards instead of nagging, pleading, and arguing and the situation started to improve.

Punishment

Punishment is when we do something to make a behavior less likely to happen again. For example, you might yell at your child as s/he reach to touch a hot stove to prevent him/her from getting hurt. Unlike reinforcement which can produce positive experiences and can be used often, punishment should rarely be used. Punishment has been found to have many negative effects and can often backfire. This can result in the person being punished becoming angry or fearful of the person punishing him/her, or have the opposite effect – engaging in more disruptive behaviors. Additionally, punishment does not teach the person what s/he should do instead of the unwanted behavior; only what s/he should not do.

For example, spanking a child because she hit her brother may temporarily stop her from hitting. However, she does not learn what to do in the future when she becomes angry with her brother. She may also become confused because she is not allowed to hit her brother, but her parents are allowed to hit her. She may become angry and scared of her parents and/or begin to threaten her brother if he “tells” on her, saying that she will hurt him more as a way to avoid getting spanked by her parents.

Punishment may result in a short-term decrease in the behavior and a sense of fleeting satisfaction for the person punishing, but the costs are too high and often do not justify the use of this method. Oftentimes, we can get the same effect (decreasing a behavior) by reinforcing a more appropriate and competing behavior (the child leaves her brother when she becomes angry and stays away until she is calm enough to resolve the dispute without aggression). Punishment should always be your last strategy, not your first.

There is another important point about punishment you need to know. Actions that look like punishment may be acting as rewards instead of punishment. Yelling, screaming, and fighting may look like punishment, but can actually be received as a reward. For example, if your marriage (or parenting) is characterized by fighting and there isn’t much kindness or positive attention, yelling can be attention and a way of connecting.

As stated earlier, your attention is a powerful reward. This extends to negative attention like fighting, yelling, and nagging. Despite our attempts to use these strategies as punishment, they may actually be rewarding the very behavior you’re hoping to change!

Additionally, our loved one may experience adrenaline when fighting or yelling, which can be rewarding. Thus, ‘the rush’ we experience when fighting may actually reward fighting.

Finally, the make-up process of fighting can reward fighting; the very thing you’re probably hoping to stop!

Take away point – punishment is the method of last resort. Behaviors that you want to decrease or get rid of can actually be dealt with more effectively with rewards (as described above) or ‘stepping away’ (what psychologists call extinction).

 

Check out the next post in this series Motivate Your Loved One Without Nagging, Threatening or Blaming: Stepping Away

 

Reflection

Think about ways you intentionally (or not) use rewards to motivate yourself or others. Can you think of how to use rewards to take back your life?

Leave a comment here with your ideas.

 

 

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