Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement

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Give yourself a pat on the back when you deserve it, while also recognizing when you’re about to engage in old patterns of behavior or self-defeating cycles, and you’ll be well on the way to becoming the kind of person you’re capable of being.

For the better part of the last 25 years, I’ve devoted much of my professional career to helping folks develop their character. And as anyone who’s undertaken this challenge can tell you, becoming a better person is really hard work. First, you have to really come to know yourself. That means making an honest appraisal of your natural propensities, facing and often re-opening your emotional wounds, examining the many experiences that shaped your attitudes, outlook on life, etc., and taking full ownership of all the things that have contributed to the formation of your character. But really knowing and understanding yourself is just the beginning of the character development process. Once you’ve gotten a fairly good read on the kind of person which nature and your experiences predisposed you to become, you have to become intimately acquainted with the kind of person you genuinely want to be. Along the way you also have to uncover, embrace and possibly re-commit yourself to your principles. On top of that, you have to somehow find the courage and strength to change, to live up to your own ideals. Make no mistake, developing integrity of character is the challenge of a lifetime.

All advanced creatures have the capacity to learn, but we humans have an exponentially greater capacity to acquire new knowledge, change, and grow. But as animal trainers have observed for years (and as behaviorally-oriented therapists, including therapists who adopt a cognitive-behavioral perspective also know from abundant research), really learning to do things differently requires both our full attention to the tasks at hand and reinforcement for executing those tasks, especially if our new learning is to be retained. And because nothing we’ve ever learned can really be unlearned — which is why old habits are so hard to break — sometimes learning to do things differently requires monumental focus and commitment. Perhaps that’s why very early on in my career as a therapist I came to appreciate and quickly grew to rely on two key tools of change: covert self-monitoring and covert self-reinforcement.

Covert self-monitoring is the process by which we train ourselves to be more aware of our interaction patterns as well as the “triggers” that prompt our reactions. It’s also a way to become more aware of the kinds of thoughts we entertain in our appraisal of situations, and the consequences that follow the behaviors that stem from our perspective. It’s a sort of mental recording, as opposed to the traditional behavioral model of keeping tangible logs of behavior. And the more we make ourselves aware of the antecedents of our behaviors and the quicker we take notice of our triggers and responses, the easier it becomes to interrupt what otherwise could be a negative behavioral “cycle.” In essence, covert self-monitoring is the mechanism by which we achieve mindfulness. The great news is that you can train yourself to be more aware. And you can also train yourself how to be more consistently and acutely aware. In short, you can teach yourself how to recognize when you’re about to engage in old patterns of behavior and disrupt any self-defeating cycles before they complete. Covert self-monitoring is a powerful tool of personal empowerment.

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The tool of covert self-reinforcement seems relatively self-explanatory. Instead of being reinforced by an external agent for executing a new behavior, you give yourself an internal (mental) pat on the back. This strategy has many payoffs. For one, the recognition and validation you give yourself is a rewarding experience that increases the likelihood that you’ll repeat your newly learned behavior. For another, being your own agent of reinforcement helps you build self-reliance, making you less reliant on external sources of motivation and encouragement. As a helping professional, I have all too often witnessed the dangers inherent in a person becoming unhealthily dependent upon his or her therapist for affirmation and support. Giving yourself positive strokes for doing things differently is a potent motivational tool.

While most of my therapy clients had few problems learning to become more mindful of their negative cycles, many had a hard time embracing the importance of and value of self-reinforcement. I think that’s at least in part due to the fact that neither the concept of “merit” nor appreciation for the value of meritorious conduct are as widely accepted in this day and age as they once were. But because we humans have the power of free choice, we’re capable of acting meritoriously, and this plays a crucial role in shaping our character. Although some regard it as so, it’s not false pride or vanity to recognize when we’ve faced a tough decision and made the better call about how to act. And even if we don’t fully succeed in doing things differently or effecting a different outcome — sometimes, despite our best efforts, things still don’t turn out the way we hope — it’s important to reinforce ourselves for making the honest effort to do things differently. It’s the right exercise of our wills that really counts. That’s what merit is all about. And with practice (i.e., “behavioral rehearsal”) both our wills and our newly acquired habits and skills can be strengthened. In the process, slowly but surely our lives and even our very selves change.

After so many years, I’m quite used to the initial surprise and skeptical curiosity most people show when I introduce them to the concepts of covert self-monitoring and self-reinforcement. I’m also used to the resistance many display, especially when it comes to recognizing and internally validating themselves for making the tough calls. But it’s always a heartwarming experience to see the joy emerge in folks who’ve persisted in the process and have come to enjoy the benefits of using these tools. Becoming the kind of person we’re capable of being is no easy task. But the rewards are abundant, and in my experience, the ordeal is well worth the effort. Fortunately, there are tools such as covert self-monitoring and self-reinforcement to help make the ordeal a little less taxing.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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