The ‘Carrot and Stick’ Approach


Our normal attitude towards life is to say “I will accept the situation when it is right” or – alternatively – “I will accept myself when I am right (i.e. when I meet the required standard). This type of attitude makes perfect sense from the point of view of our everyday way of thinking. ‘Accepting,’ we think, is something that ought to happen conditionally, which is to say when and only when things are the way that they are supposed to be.


This type of attitude would seem to be a positive one – it looks like a ‘strong’ attitude, it looks like the type of uncompromising attitude that will get results, get things done, and so on. What we are talking about here is the well-known ‘carrot and stick approach’ – a reward if and when you succeed and a good few hearty belts with a stick if you don’t. What could be a better motivator that this, after all? We all know that it’s no good being weak or lazy and just ‘letting ourselves off the hook’ the whole time. Life is tough – so it said – and therefore we have to be tough too. We have to ‘toughen up’. That’s the theory, anyway…


In reality however, when it comes right down to it, this ‘tough’ approach is an utter, unmitigated disaster! It doesn’t do what it sets out to do, and it creates a great deal of additional problems into the bargain. What actually happens when I try to put this attitude into practice is that I get stuck in a mind-set of what we might call ‘chronic non-acceptance’. I end up saddled with a mind-set of chronic frustration and dissatisfaction, chronic self-punishing and self-recrimination. This state of mind brings nothing about apart from pure, undiluted misery – there is no useful function to it at all. Either I end up constantly recriminating against the world, or I end up recriminating against myself.


And even if things do work out right for me (which they will from time-to-time just by accident, if nothing else) this doesn’t mean that I am going to be all of a sudden able to ‘lighten up’ on myself or ‘like myself’ just because I have accomplished whatever it is that I was supposed to have accomplished. It just doesn’t work like this – if I motivate myself by being hard on myself, by being ‘un-accepting’ of myself when I don’t ‘get it right’, then I am not going to change in my attitude just because things have worked out. I am not suddenly going to value myself (or like myself) because there will always be something else that I need to do in order to prove myself, something else that I need to be hard on myself about.


OK, there might be a bit of respite when I clear the latest hurdle or achieve the latest goal, but the respite is not going to last because my underlying attitude is one of self-criticism. This is a bit like the doctrine of original sin – the assumption is that we are ‘born bad’ and we need to redeem ourselves through hard work and suffering! So with the ‘being hard on yourself-type motivation’ the thing is that I feel that I need to kick myself from behind to get anything done because I am otherwise not going to do it (because I am lazy or weak or incompetent or whatever it is) but once this assumption (or my own deficiency) is in place it is always going to be the basis for everything I do. When I start off from the position of thinking that ‘I am not good enough’ then everything I do comes out of this belief, and everything I do is done for the (possibly unconscious) reason of ‘proving to myself that I am not as useless as I secretly (or not so secretly) think I am’.


This isn’t going to change no matter how successful I am at succeeding at ‘jumping over all the hurdles’ or ‘ticking all the appropriate boxes’. It is like working for a bad boss – for a boss who is always criticizing and finding fault, a boss for whom ‘nothing is good enough’. It doesn’t matter how well you perform, the situation is never going to turn around so that the boss becomes supportive and encouraging and appreciative of your efforts. A critical and fault-finding boss doesn’t suddenly stop being critical just because you are working extra hard and trying extra hard to please – if anything this just makes you even more vulnerable to them. This is like trying to please a bully so that the bully will take it easy on you. That – as everyone knows – just doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen when we are bullying ourselves either! When I am bullying myself the whole time I cannot appease myself (i.e. make myself stop bullying myself) just by trying very hard. It is never going to happen.


So once this self-critical, ‘zero tolerance’ attitude sets in then I can’t just ‘snap out of it again’ when the goals in question have been met. Being hard on yourself is a way of life, not a short-term strategy. If I am saying that I will ‘accept myself’ when I make the grade then this is a fiction, a ‘cover story’. It’s not true. If I have adopted the carrot and stick approach of conditional acceptance then this becomes my way of doing everything, across the board. If I am ‘conditionally accepting’ of myself (or of the situations that I find myself in) then I can’t just step out of it when the conditions are met and all of a sudden become unconditionally accepting – the one does not lead to the other, the one cannot give rise to the other. That would be like ‘fighting for peace’ – it’s a contradictory idea.


This point is worth repeating because we usually don’t tend to get it at all: if I think investing energy in being in a judgmental state of mind is going to somehow pay dividends (or bear fruit) in the future then I am simply deluding myself. I’m not going to be able to switch into a relaxed and non-judgmental frame of mind when the time comes – this just isn’t going to happen, no matter whether things go well or not well. If I spend all my time in an unhappy, dissatisfied state of mind (either dissatisfied with myself or dissatisfied with the world), telling myself that I will only be happy when the world is right (or when I am right) then it’s just not going to happen that I am suddenly going to snap out of this state of mind just because external circumstances have changed. On the contrary – I am going to be stuck with this unhappy state of mind full-time. The more I ‘feed it’, the more I will be stuck with it.


A non-accepting (i.e. judgmental) frame of mind is addictive – which means that once I have got into the habit of going along with this way of seeing the world, then it isn’t going to go away just by itself! The non-accepting, harshly critical frame of mind turns out to be a very hard habit to break, and so I am stuck with an attitude that is never going to get me anywhere, stuck with an approach to life that is never going bring about anything other than suffering of one sort or another. The carrot-and-stick approach may be the approach that we were brought up with – it may be even an approach that pretty much the whole of society is based on – but this doesn’t make it a good idea! This just makes it ‘a counterproductive attitude that the majority of the human race is stuck with’, for want of anything better, because we don’t know any different. It is ‘our only tool’, so to speak, and so we continue to use it even though it doesn’t work, because we just don’t know what else to do…


With regard to mindfulness, therefore, it is no good therefore saying that I will be ‘accepting’ or ‘gentle’ or ‘peaceful’ or ‘mindful’ in my attitude once the situation improves and becomes the way I think it ought to be. I have to start practicing being accepting and peaceful in my attitude right now, no matter what the situation is! What my situation might be (or what my circumstances might be) is irrelevant because learning to be non-judgmental and non-critical works equally well in any situation, under any circumstances. I’m not looking for special circumstances, I’m just working with whatever is there. I’m not trying to ‘attract certain specific situations’ and ‘repel others’ – I’m just taking an interest in what’s actually happening right now in reality.


And even when I do start working with the ‘resisting’ mind so that it isn’t resisting (i.e. ‘kicking up against everything’) the whole time, the chances are that I am still doing this with some kind of special outcome in view. The chances are that I am hoping that if I get good at being non-judgmental, non-critical, and non-resisting (i.e. if I learn to be patient) – then because I have succeeded at this – at long last things will finally start to come right for me. The chances are that I am practicing non-resistance (or gentleness) with some kind of ulterior goal in mind and so this is still resistance! I’m just being a bit subtler about it.


Thinking that ‘if I do the hard work now then the reward will come to me in the future’ is to miss the point big time. The gift isn’t that our situation eventually comes to be ‘the way that I want it to be’, that would be looking at things backwards. The gift is the accepting state of mind, the state of mind which isn’t struggling and fighting to get its own way the whole time! Although this is contrary to our understanding, the problem isn’t ‘how things are’ but the rigid and unexamined belief that ‘I know how things ought to be’. It’s not the reality of the situation that has to change, in other words, but our attitude to the situation.


But even saying this leaves the door open for self-criticism and self-blaming to enter again. If I ‘have to change’, but I can’t, if I am unable to change, then does that make me a failure? People sometimes talk about feeling like a failure when they are in therapy and can’t change the way that they are. This is sometimes called being a ‘therapy failure’! This is of course a very contradictory idea – if being in therapy makes me feel worse about myself, then what on earth is the point of it? Wouldn’t I just be better off not having the therapy in the first place? I was having a hard enough time to start off with, after all!


The reason this kind of a feeling (the feeling of failing at therapy) comes about is of course because the explicit (or implicit) belief that ‘the way we are’ is not a good way and that we need to change. In a way, this makes sense because if we are suffering then obviously we would very much want for this situation to change. But when we look at things in a deeper way we can see that this assumption isn’t true. It doesn’t hold water. At the very core of our suffering lies our difficulty in ‘accepting unconditionally’ and so when we react to our own pain by not accepting it we compound our suffering rather than making it better. We’re trying to cure the problem with the very thing, the very attitude that is causing the problem in the first place. We’re trying to free ourselves from suffering with the very attitude that brought the suffering about in the first place. We’re still thinking in terms of the carrot and the stick!


So if the carrot and stick approach creates suffering rather than curing it, then what is the best approach? What should we be doing? How should we be thinking?


Of course even this is missing the point. There is no ‘helpful approach’ because all approaches are about getting from where we don’t want to be to where we do want to be. All approaches are resistance therefore and resistance is the root cause of our pain not the remedy. There are no methods to unconditional acceptance because all methods are about going from where we don’t want to be to where we do want to be. So the ‘answer’ (if we can put it like that) is to see this and as a result of this seeing drop all of our methods, strategies and schemes. The clearer we see the pain-producing counter-productivity of trying to have an approach, of trying to have ‘an angle’, the more profound will be our letting go.


When we do have this insight there is still going to be the automatic attempt to strategize but we will not be feeding it so much. We will not be in the situation of believing in it so much. And when we see ourselves still trying – although perhaps in more subtle ways – to control and manipulate ourselves this isn’t evidence of ‘failure’; it doesn’t mean we are no good at mindfulness (i.e. that we are ‘mindfulness failures’) – this is just the way the mind is. All we have to do is realize that this is how the mind operates. The mind resists! There is no need to try to change the way that the mind works, it is helpful just to understand it.


Coercing and controlling and scheming and strategizing is neither good nor bad, it’s just the natural way for the mind to behave. To utilize the ‘carrot and stick approach’ is the natural way for the mind to behave. All we have to do is see this, and as a result of this seeing not be taken in so much by the resisting mind as it tries to sway us. This way we will gradually become freer and freer from the controlling influence of the mind, and as we become freer and freer from this influence we become at the same time more accepting of everything that happens. We’re accepting of the carrot, but at the same time we’re also  accepting of the stick, and this is the beginning of freedom…