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I learned something interesting about the human condition the other day while training my puppy.
At three and a half months old, he had been doing well with training—listening intently and enjoying the praise of his behavior meeting our expectations.
After a week or so he started to get cozy in his new digs and realized we were going to love him no matter what. He then began to regress a bit: peeing in the house, not sitting or staying on command, and no longer meeting our requirements for praise.
I turned to our online puppy class for help and caught a video about using a sound clicker to pair with his meal as a reward. I would pair the click and the food so he would respond to the click and do whatever I asked. Of course! Classic behavioral conditioning. This made perfect sense. I needed to make him work for his sustenance, praise, and general well-being. Brain washing at its best.
This was not a “do what we ask and get praised” approach, but a survival response. In order to get his basic needs met, he would need to behave in the way I guided him. I was excited to start manipulating him to do what I wanted.
After three days of clicker training during meals, I was amazed how quickly he performed and met my expectations. Not with tail wagging praise. Not with a desire to please me. Just to make sure he was able to eat. He did all that we asked, and did so with little resistance.
It then dawned on me how quickly he learned to adapt to get what he needed and how easily this became an ingrained pattern. The more we click and feed, the more he does what is asked when we click. We were amazed by his behavior and submissiveness, and he is slowly becoming a puppet to meet our needs and desires.
Yes, we say we are doing it to “help” him. We want him to come to us when we call to keep him safe. We want him to stay in place at times to ensure he is out of danger. But really, ultimately, we just want to control him and are delighted we have found a way to mold him into what we want—out of “love.”
We reward accordingly.
As a psychotherapist, this gave me seriously powerful insight into what I’m working on with myself and my clients. I can see the thought and behavior patterns which are conditioned to follow based on our early life’s training. I can see how our culture and environment told us to behave in a certain way to get our needs met.
In order to receive love and praise, we must meet the expectations of our trainer (parents, teachers, peers, culture) and we are rewarded with these basic needs of love and acceptance. It does not matter if it feels good to us or not—in order to get, you must give.
Do this people-pleasing training on repeat in various environments for 10, 20, 30, 40-plus years, and then question why it’s so hard to retrain ourselves to be who we are underneath all the conditioning.
You know you’re in there, but why is it so scary to set yourself free? The child who had to get their needs met. The teenager who just wanted attention and to be liked. The adult who wanted to experience the balance of giving and receiving love.
Why are you so hard to access?
Because you were conditioned not to be yourself. You were conditioned to perform. To meet the needs and expectations of others. To survive, you had to fit in.
You must be the puppet who eats the scraps after each click of expectation. If you want to get through this, you gotta perform. If you want to be happy, make sure your trainer is happy. Play the part. Sit, stay, heal on command.
This is what we do to survive.
Am I explaining with a touch of drama? Yes, I am. Because drama is what peaks our attention and heightens our feelings one way or another—another learned response to keep us engaged.
So how do we know we’ve been clicker trained to not be who we are? What are the signs of overtraining?
>> Rarely being comfortable in our skin.
>> Thinking of how others will respond or feel before making a decision that feels best for us and our life.
>> Praising “selflessness” in others and feeling shame when we consider our own feelings and desires.
>> Going blank when someone asks what we like to do for fun—because we stopped allowing ourselves to enjoy life long ago.
>> Waiting for a permission slip to give us time, space, and freedom to be who we are.
>> Feeling ongoing resentment that we never have what we want.
>> Often taken advantage of and questioning why people are so frequently inconsiderate.
>> And the ultimate: looking in the mirror and not recognizing who we see. Or even worse, not liking them.
If this sounds familiar, you too were clicker trained early on and are still working to re-condition yourself to be who you are and live your life in the way you want. You, too, are an active participant of the human experience. Welcome.
So how do we re-condition ourselves to return to who we are?
This is a simple practice to see how strong your conditioning is, to capture how often you give yourself away to be rewarded with praise, acceptance, money, power, authority, or something you feel is missing.
Start by tracking how you feel in your interactions with others for three days or longer. At the end of the day, note where you chose to do things you didn’t want to do because it was the “right” thing to do or where you felt you had to earn or maintain something while giving up some part of you. This will show you where your imbalances lie and where your patterns are most ingrained. The more aware we are of our habits, the more we have the ability to make another choice and steer ourselves toward being true to who we are, which is its own reward.
As you begin to strengthen your ability to choose yourself and your own well-being, your life will slowly begin to re-balance. You will note that some of your crankiness will turn to gratitude and your resentment and frustrations will begin to decrease. Joy will make a more prominent appearance in your life and your overall outlook will rise with you.
As your hunger to feed your own appetite increases, you may begin to question how those scraps were ever enough. You deserve the full meal of your life. Create the clicker response to feed yourself in a way that feels good, honest, and real. Click, reward, repeat until you like who and where you are. It’s what you are designed for.
And the bonus: when we feed ourselves to be who we are, it inspires the rest of the world to do the same.