Emotional Incentivizing for Fun and Profit

A while back, a friend wrote a blog post regarding a conversation she had with a partner about existential angst. “What is the point? Why live at all? Why be moral? Why exist?” She then described how the partner kindly but firmly responded by telling her that he didn’t think there was any point to asking the questions, and that they would never lead to satisfying answers. She had been expecting sympathy, and didn’t get it.

She cited this as a defining moment in dealing with her own issues with depression, because it was the first time she had been able to turn away from something causing her sadness. She also mentioned a former partner who had always responded to this type of angst with sympathy, and how she was depressed through that entire relationship. Not solely because of that, but she noted that in that case, the sympathy she got translated to an emotional rewarded for brooding.

I think this is a really interesting idea.

Disclaimer: I categorically do not want this to be seen as an argument against sympathizing with people dealing with depression. Most of the time, I think sympathy is one of the most important things you can offer to someone with depression. Most of the time, sympathy helps get through negative feelings, rather than reinforcing them.

The broader point that her story illustrates is that emotional risks and rewards are complicated. They’re complicated, they’re worth examining, and they’re worth learning to manipulate in order to arrange your life in a way that rewards you for doing the things you want to do and discourages the things you don’t want to do.

For example, one of the side benefits of agreeing to set aside time for emotional aftercare when you’re feeling insecure in a poly situation is that it creates an emotional reward for allowing your partner to date. I love getting time to talk through things and cuddle with a partner, and when I know that some of that will happen as a consequence of my partner going on a date, it can have the effect of making that something to look forward to, even if the dating itself sometimes makes me insecure. It creates a reason to look forward to something that ordinarily might only be scary.

A simpler example from my life that was more intentional: earlier this year, when I was trying to get some Rails experience for the internship this summer, I worked out a plan for rewarding myself for getting programming done. I made an arrangement with a friend of mine where I would check-in each week, and for every day that week that I had achieved my productivity goal, this friend would take a sexy picture of themselves and send it to me.

This is the only time in the entire history of dealing with depression that I can remember feeling at all positive about it. Without depression, I never would have thought of doing that as a reward system, and it was a fun reward system.

In summation: being aware of the ways that the arrangement of your life encourages certain things and discourages others is important. Sometimes it’s complicated, and other times, it’s simple. Sometimes it’s the manner in which particular kinds of sympathy may encourage a problem, and other times it’s pictures of boobies. This is always good to keep in mind.