One of the things ABA and similar “reward/punishment” behavior methods did was to make me hella conflict-avoidant. I don’t just mean avoidant of actual conflict. I mean avoidant of the near appearance of conflict. I mean avoidant of doing things that might potentially spark a conflict that might someday in any way get back to me.
I learned to avoid conflict early, and I learned it by being rewarded for doing what I was told and punished for mentioning or expressing my immediate needs, no matter how urgent they were. When you get punished for wiggling because you need to pee, or getting distracted because you’re hungry, or dozing off because you’re exhausted, that shit piles up fast.
I had learned by the age of five that my needs were not worth what I’d have to pay in order to stand up for them. I had learned that nothing – not food, not sleep, not oxygen, NOTHING – was worth what I would be made to pay if I fought for it, instead of just doing whatever someone else wanted me to do at the moment I had that particular need.
Now, at 35, I’ve been sitting for a month on a email I want to send to my favorite client, regarding a stunningly bad editor he recently hired. This editor is, without exaggeration, the worst editor I have ever worked with (and I’ve worked with dozens).
I have ample evidence that this editor is highly ineffective. I can explain exactly how her feedback isn’t working, what the feedback she does provide tells me about her skill (or lack thereof) as an editor, and what she needs to change. And I have the ethos to make this claim: I am currently an editor, I’ve written in the genres this client works in for nearly ten years, I’m analyzing them for an academic paper as we speak, and not only do I teach writing, I’ve also taught graduate assistant seminars on formative assessment and feedback. I’ve taught teachers how to edit student writing and give feedback to writers.
I have the credentials to assess editor feedback. I have the evidence and examples to demonstrate that this editor’s feedback is ineffective, confusing, and unclear. And I’m a contractor – I have total power to say, “hey, I can’t work with this editor so I won’t be doing work for you anymore, byeee” and to go work with any of the literally millions of editors in the world who actually give concrete, actionable feedback.
I’ve even drafted the email. I know what I want to say to Client. And I haven’t said it. Why?
I’m terrified that if I say “hey, this is not working so good for me,” I’ll wind up destitute.
Because that’s how I was taught the world worked, starting in toddlerhood. Non-compliance, saying “no,” saying “hey, wait a minute,” costs you EVERYTHING. That’s what ABA fucking taught me.
…The fact that I had TWO unsolicited inquiries in my email inbox this morning from potential clients who rustled ME up through referrals or on LinkedIn (respectively) doesn’t do anything to alleviate that fear. Neither does the fact that if this client disappeared into the ether today, my gross receipts would take about a 30% hit, and only for as long as it took me to replace this client with someone else. Neither does the fact that I can think of two content mills off the top of my head that would take me today, allowing me to ensure that 30% looked more like 10% or even 0%.
Neither does the fact that I could stop earning income entirely today, RIGHT NOW, and our housing, food, transportation, and health care would not be affected at all…because it would all be covered by my husband’s paycheck, and his employer adores him.
The survival center of my brain doesn’t care. Because the survival center of my brain had actual survival – food, sleep, using the bathroom – held over its head starting in my toddlerhood. My survival needs were contingent on my compliance. My brain is hardwired to see both reward and punishment as arbitrary and disproportionate to my own actions.
But wait, you’re probably thinking. That was thirty years ago. You’re not a toddler anymore. You’re a grownass adult with a bank account and a successful business and a CV as long as my arm. No one can touch you. What the fuck is the problem?
And you’re right, in a world that doesn’t hijack a toddler’s basic needs in order to get them to comply with arbitrary commands. I’m glad you grew up in that world. I really am. Because no one should have to grow up in the other one.
But I did. And rationality only goes so far when its debate opponent is survival.