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Stop Feeding the Dog: Break Negative Cycles

Imagine that you have a dog. In this case, it’s a big, mean, nasty dog (not your cuddly pet). We’re sitting around the table eating dinner, and this dog comes up begging for food. Just one little bite is all it wants. You give it a bite, and it goes away…

Until tomorrow. The dog comes up. This time, one bite’s not good enough. Now it wants two. The next day, it wants three.

This goes on and on until the dog is eating all of your food – and all of mine. Are you ok with that? I’m certainly not! So what do you do?

You can’t reason with a dog, right? “Go eat your Alpo. This is my pizza!” Dogs don’t speak English.

What’s your next option?

(For the purposes of this example, you can’t get rid of the dog). You could certainly try eating out, but what happens when you eat at home again? Nothing has changed. You could try locking the dog in a kennel while you eat, but has the dog really learned anything? What would happen if you let it out?

Your only real option is to STOP FEEDING THE DOG.

Now, as I mentioned, this is a big, mean, nasty dog. If it comes up expecting a bite and you don’t give it one, what is it going to do?

It’s going to beg, bark, whine, and scratch. Are you going to feed it then?

NO! (I know some of you may be tempted, but if you truly want to eat in peace, you have to be strong here).

EVENTUALLY, if you don’t feed it, the dog will give up and go away. And if you don’t feed it from the table the next time or two it begs, it will eventually learn to leave you alone.

Your mind is just like that dog. You must quit feeding it to break negative cycles.

When you feel anxious and have negative thoughts and you avoid, or otherwise, “feed the dog,” you get relief…but you are pretty much guaranteed to feel anxious next time. You are stuck in a negative cycle, and breaking the cycle can be hard, but it is possible! 

When you have a craving for sweets, and you indulge that craving, “feeding the dog,” you’ll notice more cravings.

When your mind says “You don’t have time for that” and you “feed the dog” by sacrificing self-care, you’re all but telling your mind “I like that thought.” It is going to return, louder than before. 

The good news is, you can stop feeding the dog! You just have to notice the cycle of negative reinforcement. 

Negative Reinforcement

This process is called negative reinforcement. Contrary to what most people mean when they say it, negative reinforcement actually means increasing the likelihood of a behavior by removing something unpleasant. In other words, when something gives you relief of some sort (e.g., from pain, discomfort, by getting rid of unwanted thoughts or feelings), you’re likely to do that thing again in the future. It can create a vicious, self-feeding cycle.

Like scratching an itchy mosquito bite, these actions provide short-term relief while amplifying the problem in the long run.

Fortunately, you have the power to override your mind, to resist feeding the dog, and break negative cycles, if you are willing to endure its tantrum (check out Ascend for more techniques to help with this).

At Peak Mind, we love to say that your mind can be your greatest asset or your biggest barrier. You get to choose.

What amplifying loops are you in?

Are you ready to break negative cycles and stop feeding the dog?

Are you ready to have more positive thoughts and helpful habits? 

“Growth is uncomfortable; you have to embrace the discomfort if you want to expand.”
– Jonathan Majors

P.S. A huge shout out goes to Dr. Marty Franklin, pediatric psychologist and anxiety expert at the University of Pennsylvania. I learned the feed the dog metaphor from him years ago and have used it no less than 1000 times since.