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How Positive Reinforcement at Work Has Improved My Depression

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I’ve always believed the strongest catalyst for improvement is constructive feedback. Hearing or giving myself negative feedback has made me improve or try harder. Maybe it’s my perfectionism or people-pleasing tendencies, or my deep-seated fear of inadequacy.

If I dig a little deeper, I think it’s actually a coping mechanism. I’ve had depression for as long as I can remember. I’ve always had low self-esteem, and not seen myself as good enough, so I’m exceptionally hard on myself. I don’t enjoy or celebrate my accomplishments and instead nitpick at what I should have done better or what I didn’t do right. Having a more negative outlook of myself also protected me from others catching me off-guard with criticism, which is my worst nightmare.

I also have ADHD, and people with ADHD are estimated to receive 20,000 more negative messages by the time they’re 12 compared to other kids. I felt like I had to use negative messages or constructive feedback as a motivator, otherwise, I’d just crumble under the weight of my perceived inadequacy.

Professionally, I’ve constantly heard things like “feedback is a gift” and that when you receive difficult feedback, you should be happy about it. I believed that negative feedback was necessary for me to grow and improve, and without it I would become complacent or stagnant. I’ve even said I need to be constantly improving because if I’m not moving forward, I’m moving backward. I’ve also said things like “constructive feedback is an act of care” because it means you believe in someone’s capacity to be better (which I still believe).

So over the course of my career, I just filtered out any positive feedback or reinforcement. I ignored the “good work!” and “you’re really intelligent!” type of comments I would get because I either didn’t believe them, or thought they were useless.

But recently, that all changed. I started a new job, and noticed pretty quickly that my teammates and boss are quick to compliment each other and recognize each others’ successes. At first, I didn’t really think much of it, but as I settled in more and started to get a lot of positive reinforcement, I started to feel better about myself. My confidence increases with each positive comment a person makes. That confidence and positivity have motivated me so much more than fear or feeling inadequate ever did.

I get positive reinforcement every single day. Sometimes multiple times per day, and it’s a total game-changer. It doesn’t have to be grand; a “great job in that meeting” or “it’s so awesome having you on the team” go a long way. It’s also important to point out that positive reinforcement always feels genuine and not forced. I’ve noticed myself offering positive comments more now, too, and my energy at work is a lot higher. I’m more excited about the work I’m doing because I feel excited about doing a good job.

And sure, there’s still an important place for constructive feedback and I’m always open to it, but it’s not the only way to grow and evolve. I got a lot of messages — from myself or others — about what I was doing wrong, and what to stop doing, but I was missing consistent messages about what I was doing right all along. That was a problem. Imagine you’re driving and the directions your passenger gives you is just “don’t turn right” — OK, but do I go straight? Turn left? If we only focus on what isn’t working, we don’t notice what is working.

I’ve noticed that with all this positive reinforcement around me at work, my own self-talk has improved in all aspects of my life. I find myself complimenting the things I’m doing or at the very least satisfied with myself — I hear my boss’ voice in the back of my head reminding me of what I’m good at. When I have those positive reminders, I’m so much more productive because I’m less depressed.

Sometimes I have fleeting moments where I feel adequate. It seems small but it’s huge for me; It’s so foreign and new but I want to hold onto it. That feeling has made me realize that I actually really need positive reinforcement. I need to know what I’m doing right, and I need others to see my efforts. While I know that ultimately I need to recognize my own worth and accomplishments, it’s not easy with depression, so sometimes I need help and others to do it for me. It’s a big step for me to even be open to receiving positive reinforcement; I never felt deserving of it. The fact that a teammate can compliment me and I actually believe them is so contrary to the way depression has conditioned me for over a decade.

The positive reinforcement from my team and work environment have made me feel like I belong. Depression is so isolating, and the sense of belonging that’s been cultivated from all these comments along the way is the healing balm I didn’t know I was missing.

So if you’re a boss, consistently provide positive reinforcement. Don’t just save it for quarterly reviews or when you’re trying to “sandwich” constructive feedback with two positive comments. Compliment your team. Celebrate the small wins. Encourage them and tell them what’s working really well. Confidence, effort, and engagement will soar.

Call out members of your team for doing a good job, whether you’re a manager or not. Compliment your colleagues in front of them, and also to others. Remind each other that you’re capable. Notice what others do well before you notice what they don’t do well.

Beyond the workplace, tell your friends what you like about them. Don’t wait to put it in their birthday card. Tell them why they’re wonderful. Talk about what makes them a great force in your life.

And while you’re out spreading positive reinforcement to everyone in your life, spread some within, too. You are more than enough, and you deserve it.

Getty Images photo via MStudioImages

Originally published: May 30, 2022
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