I need to pee

Explaining the difference between operant and classical conditioning in simple terms and how this relates to bullying.

When no one knows how to help you stop a bully, it's easy to become frustrated.I have a stupid pee response. I know I’m not the only one. I can be totally fine and not need to pee, but as soon as I cross the threshold into my house, suddenly I have to pee so bad I can barely make it to the bathroom in time.

It’s an annoying stupid physiological response to the stimulus of entering my home. It happens because I’ve apparently classically conditioned myself to pee when I get home. I associate coming home with needing to pee and my body reacts accordingly.

And this is what a classically conditioned response is. It’s the pairing of an instinctual response, like needing to pee, with a rather arbitrary stimulus, like entering the house. This is a lot like ringing a bell whenever you give a dog a steak. Eventually the dog will associate the ringing of a bell with the appearance of a steak and will salivate without the steak being present. All you have to do is ring a bell.

Likewise, I don’t actually have to pee to feel the need. I just need to enter my house. Because I am a geek I actually tested this one time. I was shuttling groceries in and – everytime I went through the door – my body screamed – PEE!!! But because I have the ability to choose to ignore my instincts, I ignored my immediate overwhelming need to pee and went back outside to get more groceries. And … the sensation of needing to pee went away. Went back in, and suddenly I needed to PEE!!! A classic example of a classically conditioned response.

The good news is that being human means that we don’t have to allow our conditions to condition us. We have the ability to choose our responses and by choosing to not give into our instincts, we can actually reprogram our instinctual responses. For instance, since my little experiment, my need to pee when I come home is greatly diminished. I’ve reprogrammed my conditioned response so I’m not so conditioned anymore. The stuff we intentionally choose to learn is what is known as operant conditioning. Or conditioning by choice as opposed to instinctual behavior.

The key to operant conditioning is to give yourself the time you need to retrain your instincts. Specifically challenge and refuse to give in to the instinctual response.

The same can happen with your instinctual response to bullies. Most people are afraid of bullies and respond by withdrawing emotionally and visually. We make ourselves small and put our head down so we don’t see them. However, you can choose to not give in to your instinctual response. For instance, if your bully scares you, you can acknowledge feeling scared, but refuse to act as if you are scared. You can choose to respond calmly. To do this, you have to practice what to say and where to look and then, when you feel scared, intentionally choose to look directly at your bully despite your instinct to look down. Do this enough and your old fear instinct will give way to a new confidence that, no – you don’t have to be afraid.

Again, the key is to practice. Every time you choose to override your instincts, it becomes easier to do it the next time. And the fact that you don’t do this perfectly every time is not a big deal. Every bit helps you to overcome your conditions so that you can choose your response more easily the next time. For instance, every time I refused to rush to the bathroom I reduced my need to pee the next time I enter the house and it just became easier and easier. The same happens with bully. First you have to consciously choose to ignore your fears and eventually, you just aren’t afraid anymore.



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