Fool’s Gold – Rewards & Placebos 

When Rachel walks in to Central Perk in her wedding dress, she’s arguing with her father about how she feels as if everyone has been asking her to be a shoe, and she has been trying to become one. Her conundrum is hilarious due to the metaphor used, but the dilemma that she faced was a universal one. More often than not, we chip off parts of ourselves to fit in with others. We shrink ourselves over and over again by not expressing our opinions or needs. In repeatedly being less of us, we keep crumbling until we realize that no one has seen us for who we are. At that point, who do we turn to for support? How do we get to that point?

The path that leads us there is the need for reward. We are constantly rewarded for fitting in. We feel accepted, we feel seen, we feel like we matter, none of which we felt enough of when we were being wholly ourselves. These rewards give us a sense of value that is bestowed by external figures in minute ways, such as being deemed part of an inner circle, having the “right” opinions, or generally being worthy. In reality, a reward can mean recognition, appreciation, money, alternate compensation and so on. We become accustomed to these omnipresent rewards, which could lead to disillusionment about why we should continue doing something without being rewarded for it.

Despite a fear of rejection, the hope for a reward often keeps us going. When we feel like giving up, we most crave acknowledgement for our efforts through a reward. While we wait for someone else to notice our efforts and reward us, the helplessness can be frustrating and can take us off track.

To reclaim our narrative, we use a placebo to combat helplessness. A placebo isn’t a guarantee by any means. It is a play on the principle: ‘Something is better than nothing’, particularly when that something fulfils the need that we expect someone else to fulfil. It’s like having Leprechaun gold – the kind that disappears in a while, but makes us feel like we aren’t totally broke while we work for more. Our reward doesn’t need to be related to the task accomplished – it just has to be good enough to make us feel validated.

When we wait for a reward in response to the situation, we leave that validation to an external source. The placebo effect says: “I have put in my best and have done my part, I need to reward my efforts. I have to acknowledge that and give myself the satisfaction and the feeling of self-worth – and treat myself to something that I like, because I earned it”. Hence, these rewards aren’t just about accomplishing certain milestones – they’re about working towards those milestones, celebrating firsts, celebrating efforts towards those firsts and so on.

Self-rewards can initially feel silly or unconvincing simply because they are from us to us, and since we tend to be harsh on ourselves. They don’t contain the validation that someone else’s words would. However, by allowing ourselves the possibility that we might be worthy of what we believe we deserve, our dependence on receiving that worth only when it is granted to us by an authority figure is reduced. Our belief in this possibility leads us to strive a little more to feel like we earned it, thereby improving our performance and reinforcing our worth. These rewards get in touch with our emotions and needs and develop a sense of responsibility within us to get those needs fulfilled. When we do this, we stop accepting less from others.

In reality, there is no perfect method of cause and effect. Waiting around for our efforts to be noticed and rewarded could cost us our motivation and self-worth. By choosing to take a leap of faith with ourselves, what might begin as a placebo can transform into a catalyst. We might begin with Leprechaun’s gold and make do with it while we earn the real deal. We just have to decide that we are worth that faith and belief. That we deserve to be respected as who we are. Or, in Rachel’s words, as a purse, in a world of shoes.

This article is written by Ms Nandita Seshadri, a therapist and integral part of Team Adveka.

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