Performance vs. Vulnerability and internal vs external rewards

In earlier posts I have mapped out some habit loops and explained how our brains seek to do the behaviors that give us the biggest rewards.  This reward based learning model becomes a problem when we are always seeking external rewards to feel better.  The problem with external rewards is that they are not dependable and often come with consequences.  Eating an ice cream every time we feel anxious is rewarding in the moment, but we can’t always depend on there being access to ice cream.  Furthermore, there are a whole host of negative consequences that come from indulging in sugary foods.  Eating ice cream when we are anxious is not that rewarding if we take the time to bring mindful attention to how we really feel afterwards.  This is in contrast to internal rewards that are more reliable.  These are the rewards of being curious about our emotions, being kind and compassionate to ourselves, taking care of our mental and emotional health, and moving towards our values.  

When connecting with others socially the reward based learning model of habit loops can be more subtle, but socially too we move towards what feels good and away from what doesn’t feel good.  The problem becomes when we use external social rewards as something we need to feel better.

The Performance Mindset and external rewards

In general there are two ways that we can show up socially with others.  The first is what I call the performance mindset, and the second is the vulnerability mindset.  If we enter social situations with a performance mindset our goal is to prove something to other people.  We will feel good if other people respond well to us and think we are doing a good job socially, and we feel crappy if other people seem disinterested in us.  If others do not seem particularly interested in us, we will take this as evidence that we are actually not performing well enough and we will seek other means and other ways to perform for others.  We are stuck in a constant spiral of never enough.  If we can just get better abs or improve our social skills a little bit more, then people will like.  Here the locus of control is all external.  

We are never ready, and never enough.  We have to constantly be looking outside ourselves to calibrate how what we are doing is coming across to others.  This keeps us from being present.  If someone we are with doesn’t like something then we agree with them because we think it will make them like us more.  

As we can see, all of the above performance behaviors take us away from our values and our authentic selves, yet they are seductive precisely because they give us a reward.  They make us feel better.  Performance seems to feel good in the moment.  Praise seems to feel good in the moment.  If we don’t feel very good about ourselves and we are not grounded in internal rewards, then seeking external rewards through performance is a way that we can feel better.  Our brains remember the reward and how we got it and the performance mindset becomes a habit and part of how we operate socially in the world.

In the performance mindset, the question is always “how am I doing?” in the eyes of others. 

We live in your heads, and are constantly evaluating how we think we are doing in the eyes of others.  After an event ends, we spend time in post event rumination thinking over whether we said something stupid or whether people like us.  If they did seem to like us, now we have to try to figure out what we said and what jokes we made so that we can replicate them again.  We become a slave to others’ moods and opinions.  If someone we like laughs at our jokes one day and the next day they don’t laugh at our jokes, now we feel worthless.  We have not performed well!  It becomes harder and harder for us to take risks in the future.  We spend all this time trying to figure out what we did wrong.  

In the performance mindset, we are basically living our lives crafted to what we think others want because that’s the only way we can get a social reward and feel better.  We have created habit loops around our social “performances” being validated by others.  This is the opposite of being attractive because people want to be around people who value themselves.  People pick up on the neediness.  Our minds will always be evaluating how we are doing and we will never be able to be present enough to connect.  

Another problem with the performance mindset is that it completely leaves out the full spectrum of human emotions.  If we are feeling a negative emotion, then we will either try to hide it or we will avoid it until we feel positive emotions.  I did this for years.  The problem is that this isn’t how people connect.  The other problem is that if we are accepted for only the positive we will never feel like we are actually seen for our true selves.  People are only seeing and accepting part of us.  When something is difficult in life we will think we have to hide it from others otherwise they will end the connection.  In the performance mindset everything is so fragile.  People are always ready to leave us because we believe what they like about us isn’t us, but our skills and performance.  Those things can change on a whim.   

The Vulnerability Mindset and internal rewards

The vulnerability mindset, on the other hand, is all about connection.  Connection rests on showing up and being real.  It means presenting our authentic selves to the world and giving others the freedom to respond how they see fit.  Vulnerability requires us to be able to tolerate the difficult emotions that show up in our bodies when we interact with other humans.  It also means taking care of ourselves.  We don’t just dump our problems on anyone.  As shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown talks about, we need to share our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them.  Confidence comes from having a life where we enjoy social connection, but we don’t need it to feel better.  We do not get caught in performance habit loops because we are able to pursue internal rewards.

With a vulnerability mindset we are not trying to get anything from anyone.  The goal is simply to show up and connect.  To see and be seen.  To be open to whatever comes up in an interaction without planning it and without having a goal.  This is real vulnerability.  Trusting the raw experience of being in relationship and not knowing what’s going to happen.  By trusting in this way we actually are giving ourselves and the other person the freedom to act how each of us wants to act in the moment.  We are giving the other person the freedom to say something or not, to move in or away, and to reveal something personal or not.  Vulnerability requires that we feel into this uncomfortable space of not knowing. 

Connection happens in the space between words.  Often in conversations a thought will pop into our minds and there will be an urge to say something.  We want to fill any silence with these thoughts.  However, this actually gets in the way of connection.  Connection happens on an emotional level.  It happens in the space between the words when two people are actually feeling into the present moment with each other.  Connection happens through the eye contact and the facial expression and the body language.  It’s only in the silence that we can really get a feel for the other person that we are talking with.  

The seductiveness of the performance mindset is that it offers all of these short term rewards whereas the vulnerability mindset requires us to experience unpleasant sensations in the body and learn to be with them.  Connection requires us to feel what it’s like to be present with another human.  Real connection means a lot of stuff is going to come up in our own bodies.  It’s only when we get mindful about what we are actually getting from each of the two mindsets that we see that vulnerability and true human connection are actually more rewarding in the long term.  By paying attention we can update the reward values of these two distinct mindsets and see that the performance doesn’t really feel very good after the initial hit and vulnerability, while uncomfortable, leads to a fulfilling life or meaning and connection. 

To orient ourselves from a place of vulnerability, we must have courage in our ability to find internal rewards because in order for us to connect, we need to be willing to lose the connection.  This means that we need to allow for a space where we feel safe enough to leave an interaction at any time and also be willing to give the other person the space to leave the interaction when they want to.  This is social freedom.  Allowing each party the opportunity to continue the interaction or not.  However, if we are not comfortable in our own bodies, lives, and ability to feel good with internal rewards like curiosity and kindness, then we are going to really need the external reward of the other person so we can feel better.  

The irony is that it’s only when we have sufficient internal resources where we don’t need others that we are in a better place to actually connect with others.  Other people pick up on this lack of us needing to get something from them and they feel safe enough to actually stick around and connect.  We can enjoy their company for who they are and not because we need them to offer us something that’s lacking inside of us.  We don’t need them to make our unpleasant body sensations go away and replace them with more pleasant ones for a few moments. 

So the task here is the same as everything else I have discussed on this blog. In order for us to show up and be real with others, we must be able to befriend the sensations of vulnerability themselves.  The fear, and sadness, shame, longing.. Whatever comes up when we truly connect with another human.  In order to experience all the joys of connection we must be willing to experience the physical sensations of vulnerability. 

Like anything else, we can train ourselves to be with these sensations.  As we become more comfortable accepting and befriending these sensations of vulnerability, then we give ourselves the space to actually show up and be vulnerable, real, and authentic with others.  We can share our stories and emotions and allow others to share their stories, emotions, etc while trusting that we can handle whatever comes up.  

External social rewards:


Feel crappy-get praise or approval from another person-feel better

Feel crappy- remember the behavior I did last time to get approval from the other person- feel better momentarily but start to lose myself and my values in the process.

Internal social rewards:


Feel crappy— Do the RAIN exercise(discussed in previous posts) and recognize “crappy” is actually sadness.  Accept the sadness and investigate it in the body.  Offer that place some care— feel better


Feel crappy while talking to someone—


Don’t need to get anything from the other person because we know we can meet our own needs with RAIN.  So we act authentically


feel better for acting authentically.. Get more rewards by doing RAIN after the interaction.  The other person sees that we are real and they can choose how they want to continue the interaction or not.  No manipulation required!

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