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Hard Work and Real Learning Change Your Brain

I’ve always been against (and aghast) at the idea of giving people praise solely to help them feel better about themselves. The truth is that self-esteem comes from increased competence and confidence, each of which feeds the other. In fact, the “work” involved in gaining competence is what changes the brain and causes learning to occur.

An article entitled, “Educators re-examine self-esteem boosting” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 1/16/12), explains how bona fide self-esteem develops in children and, more importantly, how it doesn’t. “Brain imaging shows how…connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills.” That’s why I’m always harping on the need for practice in becoming a “normal” eater even when you’re frustrated or hopeless. Learning occurs no matter how you feel about the process. Just do the work, and success—via a changed brain—will be yours.

The article also talks about seeking external rewards and calls folks who become dependent on outside feedback “praise junkies.” People are better off, says Alfie Kohn, author of PUNISHED BY REWARDS, “cultivating their own judgment and motivation to learn.” Diets and a focus on weight make people “praise junkies,” desperate for compliments that come when they’ve stuck to a rigid food plan or shed pounds. As I’ve said repeatedly, this kind of quick reinforcement that doesn’t derive from within does little for you long-term. It’s nothing like the pride you feel from a job well done when you’ve struggled to do new tasks and have succeeded.

Another point in the self-esteem article is that we must stop praising ourselves only when we succeed and, instead, must start encouraging ourselves to struggle hard and long. We need to say “good job,” according to experts, when we take risks and fail, not only when we succeed. It’s the struggle itself that changes our brains and fosters learning. So many disregulated eaters believe the process of change should be easy. Why? Because then it would generate less discomfort in the way of frustration, impatience, and hopelessness. The truth is that discomfort and struggling in spite of frustration, impatience, and hopelessness is precisely what produces competence and stimulates confidence. You feel good about yourself because you did something hard.

Please stop trying to make becoming a “normal” eater a walk in the park. It isn’t. It takes many months to a few years of practice. Just keep doing the work and you’ll get there.