Photo: Unsplash/Yingchou Han

Stop Sabotaging Yourself (and Your Animal)

When I was ten years old, I had the idea to take all of the books we owned and put them into a self-made library system. It was a time-consuming, labor intensive endeavor.

Of course, in the heat of the moment I wasn’t objectively thinking of how long the project would take; I was thinking of how accomplished I would feel.

And as I got older that sentiment ran rampant throughout my life, well into university and young adulthood. I surrounded myself with people who were like-minded achievers. Big goals, big accomplishments.

But it wasn’t until my mentor committed suicide this past Fall that I really began to reflect and write about this. 

Accomplishing, achieving, pushing ourselves, and setting goals can all easily translate to never being “enough.” For me, these happen to be my flavors of the addicting cycles of shame and guilt. They mask themselves as “self-improvement.”

Here’s the scary part: Nobody will sit you down and stop you. In fact, in our society “busy-ness” is glorified; “success” is determined by how many people follow you or how much money you make or how many things you have.

And this “busy-ness” is a lovely way to numb-out, to avoid digging deep, to never accept our vulnerabilities, to deny our fears.

I set a goal, I work hard at getting there, and I achieve it. But I still feel incomplete. I feel shameful for not feeling the way I thought I would or the way society alluded that I would.

So, I guilt myself into my next numbing-out activity. I watch hours of TV, I feel bad about doing so, so I watch more TV to make myself feel better.

Sound familiar?

How does this apply to animal training?

I am a dedicated positive reinforcement trainer. Part of my journey to becoming one was understanding the effects other routes of behavior modification can have on the mind of animals and people.

So, when I am with animal learners or human learners, I am 100% committed to meeting them where they are. I start from that point, and I do not put pressure on them to be any place other than where they are.

When I was in school to become certified, my teacher would have me try an exercise. She would not tell me what I did wrong; she would only tell me what I did right. The first time I had this strange experience, I was really angry inside.

“Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to learn and get better if she is NOT critiquing me?! I know I did a lot of stuff incorrectly! This is ridiculous!”

I was actually irritated that she wasn’t telling me everything I did wrong or focusing on what I needed to improve. I felt like I needed it.

That is how I experienced learning most of my life. I’m guessing you are not much different.

The fear of not improving one’s self or not having someone correct our mistakes is that we will be left with all these blind spots.

“I’m going to be walking around thinking I am the greatest thing ever if I think this way! Well… I’m not! I need to be told how to be better!”

Classical example of what clients come to me with: dog is doing X. I don’t like X. How do I get him to stop doing it?

The answer I give usually surprises them. I start asking questions about what the animal can do in that situation. I start reinforcing that heavily, and then I shape the behavior to become something that is incompatible with the maladaptive behavior.

Here’s the first question I get: What do I do when he does the wrong behavior though?

We are so caught up with correcting both our animals and ourselves. There are a few things to do here:

  • You can manage the situation in a different way to prevent the behavior from happening at all;
  • You can use a positive interrupter and then reinforce;
  • You can change the consequences of the behavior and offer an alternate choice that addresses the function of the behavior; or
  • You can ignore it. (Shock! Horror!)

People are sometimes irritated and upset that we are missing out on all the correcting that could be happening. What they don’t realize – and I didn’t for a long time either – is that the learner does not yet have the skill to choose something else. If they did, they would be doing it. Similar to us, if we know better, we try to do better.

Another issue – and this is important – is that the learner lacks confidence. They are desperately grasping at behaviors that they think best serve them in their environment.

They are not willing to try new things because most times they fear being reprimanded, either because it is not “perfect” or because it doesn’t look anywhere near what the ideal behavior should look like.

Back to the humans…

We use self-improvement and lifestyle choices to beat ourselves up. And we do it constantly.

The ego says, “See, you are not good enough. You should be more ___. You could ___. You should really stop ____.”

This is the ego’s job, and it serves us at times. But not during the learning process.

Our ego protects us from getting hurt. Yet, it also hinders our ability to learn due to the fear that worse hurt is coming.

The answer lies in building yourself up, NOT tearing yourself down. Focusing on what you are NOT doing keeps you in those vicious cycles.

“You suck. Look at you sucking!”

Wave bye-bye to any shred of inner confidence. Now you are so bummed that you don’t even want to try.

Once we build that inner confidence, suddenly the cycles of shame and guilt that fuel our maladaptive behaviors disappear.

So stop focusing on the things you are doing wrong.  Try for a day to only focus on the things you are doing right. And celebrate it!

This felt so bizarre and uncomfortable for me when I started.  “I don’t need to celebrate the fact that I got out of bed… That is what I should be doing.”

Hint: Anytime you are doing something because you SHOULD, it means you are doing it for someone else.

Start living for your inner you.

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I am an animal trainer and owner of Bark and Soul. I have guided hundreds of people to new, empowered and educated relationships with their pets through my science-based and heart-centered approach. I earned my degree in Biological Psychology with an emphasis in Animal Behavior from UC Davis and worked in veterinary clinics, shelters, farms and sanctuaries before opening my own practice. My unique approach integrates the latest research in the fields of psychology and mindfulness studies.

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Stop Sabotaging Yourself (and Your Animal)

When I was ten years old, I had the idea to take all of the books we owned and put them into a self-made library system. It was a time-consuming, labor intensive endeavor.

Of course, in the heat of the moment I wasn’t objectively thinking of how long the project would take; I was thinking of how accomplished I would feel.

And as I got older that sentiment ran rampant throughout my life, well into university and young adulthood. I surrounded myself with people who were like-minded achievers. Big goals, big accomplishments.

But it wasn’t until my mentor committed suicide this past Fall that I really began to reflect and write about this. 

Accomplishing, achieving, pushing ourselves, and setting goals can all easily translate to never being “enough.” For me, these happen to be my flavors of the addicting cycles of shame and guilt. They mask themselves as “self-improvement.”

Here’s the scary part: Nobody will sit you down and stop you. In fact, in our society “busy-ness” is glorified; “success” is determined by how many people follow you or how much money you make or how many things you have.

And this “busy-ness” is a lovely way to numb-out, to avoid digging deep, to never accept our vulnerabilities, to deny our fears.

I set a goal, I work hard at getting there, and I achieve it. But I still feel incomplete. I feel shameful for not feeling the way I thought I would or the way society alluded that I would.

So, I guilt myself into my next numbing-out activity. I watch hours of TV, I feel bad about doing so, so I watch more TV to make myself feel better.

Sound familiar?

How does this apply to animal training?

I am a dedicated positive reinforcement trainer. Part of my journey to becoming one was understanding the effects other routes of behavior modification can have on the mind of animals and people.

So, when I am with animal learners or human learners, I am 100% committed to meeting them where they are. I start from that point, and I do not put pressure on them to be any place other than where they are.

When I was in school to become certified, my teacher would have me try an exercise. She would not tell me what I did wrong; she would only tell me what I did right. The first time I had this strange experience, I was really angry inside.

“Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to learn and get better if she is NOT critiquing me?! I know I did a lot of stuff incorrectly! This is ridiculous!”

I was actually irritated that she wasn’t telling me everything I did wrong or focusing on what I needed to improve. I felt like I needed it.

That is how I experienced learning most of my life. I’m guessing you are not much different.

The fear of not improving one’s self or not having someone correct our mistakes is that we will be left with all these blind spots.

“I’m going to be walking around thinking I am the greatest thing ever if I think this way! Well… I’m not! I need to be told how to be better!”

Classical example of what clients come to me with: dog is doing X. I don’t like X. How do I get him to stop doing it?

The answer I give usually surprises them. I start asking questions about what the animal can do in that situation. I start reinforcing that heavily, and then I shape the behavior to become something that is incompatible with the maladaptive behavior.

Here’s the first question I get: What do I do when he does the wrong behavior though?

We are so caught up with correcting both our animals and ourselves. There are a few things to do here:

  • You can manage the situation in a different way to prevent the behavior from happening at all;
  • You can use a positive interrupter and then reinforce;
  • You can change the consequences of the behavior and offer an alternate choice that addresses the function of the behavior; or
  • You can ignore it. (Shock! Horror!)

People are sometimes irritated and upset that we are missing out on all the correcting that could be happening. What they don’t realize – and I didn’t for a long time either – is that the learner does not yet have the skill to choose something else. If they did, they would be doing it. Similar to us, if we know better, we try to do better.

Another issue – and this is important – is that the learner lacks confidence. They are desperately grasping at behaviors that they think best serve them in their environment.

They are not willing to try new things because most times they fear being reprimanded, either because it is not “perfect” or because it doesn’t look anywhere near what the ideal behavior should look like.

Back to the humans…

We use self-improvement and lifestyle choices to beat ourselves up. And we do it constantly.

The ego says, “See, you are not good enough. You should be more ___. You could ___. You should really stop ____.”

This is the ego’s job, and it serves us at times. But not during the learning process.

Our ego protects us from getting hurt. Yet, it also hinders our ability to learn due to the fear that worse hurt is coming.

The answer lies in building yourself up, NOT tearing yourself down. Focusing on what you are NOT doing keeps you in those vicious cycles.

“You suck. Look at you sucking!”

Wave bye-bye to any shred of inner confidence. Now you are so bummed that you don’t even want to try.

Once we build that inner confidence, suddenly the cycles of shame and guilt that fuel our maladaptive behaviors disappear.

So stop focusing on the things you are doing wrong.  Try for a day to only focus on the things you are doing right. And celebrate it!

This felt so bizarre and uncomfortable for me when I started.  “I don’t need to celebrate the fact that I got out of bed… That is what I should be doing.”

Hint: Anytime you are doing something because you SHOULD, it means you are doing it for someone else.

Start living for your inner you.

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