I had a TON of dental work done when I was little – something like 13 teeth pulled, braces, surgery. There were metal bands and hooks and elastics and headgear. So much miraculous intervention between the ages of 6-12 to give me a working set of teeth and a viable smile. It’s one of the most life-changing gifts my parents ever gave me.
At the time, though, it didn’t feel like such a gift. My orthodontist was mean and seemed to hate his job, and his partner in the practice was a woman who both shared these qualities AND didn’t like children. I hated going there and have been afraid of dentists ever since.
My mom is a genius, though, and came up with a way to help me navigate the stress of these appointments, especially the biggies where we knew there would be needles, blood, and a week of recovery involved. She used the reward system.
I was into two things at that age: gymnastics, and reading. We didn’t buy a lot of books back then because we had a good library and not much extra money. But on days when I was going in for a major dental procedure, Mom would take me to the bookstore first and let me buy a book. There were these huge picture books profiling different gymnasts – One was about Olympic Champion Nadia Comaneci, another was a about a girl my age who lived on Long Island and was in training. I loved them, and spent hours pouring over the pictures and reading the stories. I remember more details from those books (Nadia and her teammates vacationed on the Black Sea!) than anything I’ve read as an adult. Those books meant so much to me – then, and even now, as I remember them.The ritual of picking out a new book before a scary procedure gave me something to think about beforehand, and something to look forward to when I came out of whatever anesthesia they’d put me under and hit the place where my whole face just hurt.
I remembered all this today because a friend posted a picture on Facebook of the painting she made to record her weight loss journey. On one side was a list of her goals: #’s of pounds lost and a place to check when she reached that new milestone. (Most were checked.) On the other side was a list of rewards partnered with each goal: New pajamas, perfume, a grill, a handbag. Things that she might have bought herself anyway, just because.
Have you noticed how much crap out there in the marketing world is there to tell us we should buy ourselves things just because, or justify getting whatever we want with the phrase, I deserve it? I love how my friend’s painting reminded me that we can turn this ridiculousness around and return to the idea that we should work for things; not just because it makes us better people (I think it does), but also because we appreciate and enjoy things SO much more when we’ve worked for them, whether that work is sweating at the gym, completing a daunting project, or not throwing a tantrum when the cruel orthodontist smiles and comes at you with another giant needle.
(I also love that this process gave my friend a chance to re-conceptualize “rewards” from food to other things she’d enjoy. Unless you’re starving, food is kind of a lousy reward because it’s over so quickly.)
At the top of my friend’s picture she’d written, A NEW ME! I think she meant it about the weight loss. But it reminded me of how much we change inside when we do hard things that take a long time and feel horrible/painful/awkward/not worth it as we’re struggling with all the little decisions required to get from where we are to where we want to be.
I’m inspired by this. I want to create a way to REMEMBER the work, the choices, the results, and the rewards. It’s so easy to forget and get lost in the swirl of life’s frantic busy-ness, or the awful abyss of feeling like nothing you do matters and you have no purpose. I’ve spent too much time lately up in my head, bouncing between these two extremes. Enough of that already.
It’s time to dump my goals out onto a colorful poster, pick some new rewards (Books are still my love language :) ) and get to work. Not because I deserve it. But because if there’s an upgraded, 2.0 version of me to be had, I’d like to get there.