A Little Positive Reinforcement Goes A Long Way

A friend of mine was working on a challenging project recently, and she was feeling pretty frustrated and defeated. It was hard for her to get and stay motivated, and she felt like she was kind of blowing in the breeze. I turned myself into her personal cheerleader. I reminded her that she was awesome and totally capable of doing this, that she had the skills to do it, and that the project was worth completing. I volunteered to be her buddy, I set arbitrary deadlines to help her stay on track, but above all, I offered positive reinforcement and support.

I made sure she knew that she was talented and good at what she did. Because she was, and she is, and it’s easy to forget that when you are mired in a project that you are having a hard time with. And when you’re living in a world where people are expected to be strong and independent and figure their own stuff out, and thus aren’t allowed to admit that they’re feeling weak or confused. There’s a lot of pressure to perform perfectly, and to perform like no effort is involved, like anyone could do it. When you’re not performing the way people want you do, you can start to feel like a failure, even though that’s not the case.

Most people generally recognise that young children need positive reinforcement and support, because they’re learning and developing. They get gold stars and everyone gets a medal and people cheer for them and they’re praised for accomplishments small and large. Being in this kind of environment helps children develop more self-confidence, as well as giving them the tools for future success. Sadly, not all children have access to it, but those who do tend to do better, because they’re aware that they can succeed, and that people are around them to back them up and support them.

What we seem to forget as adults is that sometimes we need the same kind of encouragement, and that becoming a grownup doesn’t mean we are done working, learning, pushing our boundaries, and developing. Sometimes we do need people to be cheerleaders, to come up with silly prizes for us, to mark our accomplishments. We have a tendency to underplay things, and we need someone to come along and say ‘hey, that thing you did was super awesome! Good work!’

It feels immensely cheesy when I say it like that, but honestly, positive reinforcement like that really does go a long way, and it’s the kind of support that isn’t available to a lot of adults. I see it sometimes in writing groups, where people are focused on supporting each other and helping members of the group achieve goals, for example, but I don’t see it being offered in a lot of other settings. And I don’t see it being discussed very often; when people do talk about support like this, sometimes it’s framed in a slightly sneering way, suggesting that people are needy and silly for needing this kind of feedback in their lives.

The fact is that sometimes you feel like a complete failure, and you really do need someone to give you some praise, to remind you that you are good at something, to ask you how a project is going. Sometimes you really do need someone to mark a small accomplishment for you because it makes you feel better; and that is not at all silly. It’s not silly to want some recognition of the fact that you’re working on something that is hard for you, nor is it silly to want support from the people around you.

I put my friends’ grades on my fridge. And I stick gold stars on the paper when they get A’s. Sure, it’s kind of silly, and we joke about it, but there’s also a serious undercurrent to it: I am seriously glad they’re pursuing an education, and I’m proud of them when they do well, and I want them to know that I support them and want them to do well in school. Genuine support can make the difference between wanting to walk away and throw in the towel, and deciding to push through, especially when you’re having a hard week and everything seems to be going wrong for you. Someone to say ‘hey, take a break from those haters’ can be so critically important when it feels like your entire world is collapsing.

Adults need affirmations too, and they don’t even need to be that complex. You don’t need to hire a plane to skywrite a message of support; sometimes all it takes is a friendly text to someone who’s going to be stuck in meetings all day and wants a vote of confidence. Or a quick phone call or chat. Some little extra something to let someone know you’re thinking of them, and rooting for them, and you’re excited to see where they go next.

I’m suspicious of people who seem to think that adults should thrive without positive reinforcement and support, because humans are social animals, and we rely on feedback from each other to function and make decisions. When you aren’t getting any positive feedback, it’s hard to understand why you should keep doing something, because you can develop the sense that no one cares or has any particular interest. In that situation, anyone would feel tempted to give up, no matter how resilient and independent they are, because it’s not about personal fortitude and strength, but about knowing that you are part of a community, and that people are noticing you.