Tip #121: Start a marble jar.
The Why: Once again dear reader, I’m imagining your slight confusion at reading the headline of this tip.
And once again dear reader, I shall ask you to hear me out.
My little brother and sister look like little angels, but sometimes, just sometimes, they can be little devils.
In order to encourage good behaviour, my dad began a new incentive programme to get them in line. The marble jar programme.
The idea is that when we punish someone for bad behaviour, all that is achieved is making that individual feel incredibly bad about themselves, which reinforces a negative identity. Once they view themselves as being bad, they will act as such. This is because over time, new pathways created in the brain that begin to associate the very idea of ‘them’ with negativity. If the world treats you like you’ve done something wrong before you’ve even done it, then you’ll not see the point in trying to behave.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, if you reward someone’s good traits and positively reinforce their amazing qualities and behaviours, then that person is encouraged to do more good things as they will associate that behaviour with a reward. You will often find that by encouraging the good actions, the negative behavioural traits eliminate themselves, as they will be viewed as fruitless endeavours. The same logic applies, if the world treats you like you’re a good person, you will aim to do good things in order to live up to the expectation and enjoy the reward of praise, and your brain will associate ‘you’ with positivity.
So, for every good action or good thing my little brother and sister do (not peeing their pants as soon as they’ve put them on, being kind at school, taking the fall for their big sister breaking things) they get a marble, and when they’ve filled up their marble jar, they get a big prize.
I’ve honestly never seen two people more excited to receive a glass ball. It may as well be an Olympic gold medal. To them, each marble is a symbol of victory.
The same logic can be applied to anxiety. If whenever we have a relapse, a panic attack, or are too anxious to go out with friends, we punish ourselves with negative thoughts and feelings of hopelessness, thus reinforcing the view that we are always going to be anxious. This, in turn, creates the neural pathways that signal to our brain that anxiety is undefeatable, that we are bad people, that there is no point in trying.
This then creates a negative feedback loop that makes us less inclined to attempt to overcome our fears and terrors.
So, imagine if instead of unleashing a Pandora’s box of horrors and negativity on ourselves every time we fall short, we simply tried another path.
If we tried rewarding ourselves for times where we successfully overcome our anxiety, or did a scary thing, or got through a day without a panic attack.
From the very big like attending a party, or going travelling, to the seemingly very small like going outside for a walk, or trying a new food, we should give ourselves a marble.
By using this technique, we will find ourselves actively wanting to go and do things that mildly or fully terrifying us. We will feel empowered and excited about the prospect of overcoming anxiety. We will find ourselves with a delicious reward once the jar is full.
Positively reinforcing the good behaviours will encourage more good behaviours, and could even entirely change the view we have of ourselves to a more positive, hopeful one.
The marble jar also provides a visual and tangible tracker of how far you’ve come, and how well you are doing. Seeing the jar fill up, even if it’s slow, is a reminder of progress and possibility.
It will remind us whenever we look at it, that it is possible to overcome anxiety.
Now of course, unless you are 4 or 7 years old like my brother and sister (or 22 like me), a marble jar may seem a little bit old school, or young school, but this is a technique that can be adapted and changed to suit the needs (and age) of the person taking part.
Even if it’s not marbles, so long as you find a system that rewards good anti-anxiety behaviour that works for you, and that you can visibly see, that’s all you need.