I had braces for two and a half years of my life. My teeth were decorated with glittering metal and tiny, colorful rubber bands from eighth grade through my sophomore year of high school. Since I had an overbite that would make a beaver gasp, I also had headgear.
Headgear is painful and complicated. It involves tiny metal tubes that are fitted onto your molars, a thin metal bar that slides into your mouth with prongs that fit inside those tubes, all of which is held in place against the back of your head with a strip of padded fabric in a kicky color, like hot pink. The idea is to forcibly pull back your overbite using metal wires strapped to your mouth and head. Then you try to go to sleep. This encasement makes you drool everywhere, so you regularly wake up in a cold puddle.
Every time I went to the orthodontist (once or twice a month—far too often), she tightened my headgear and my braces a notch, ensuring that everything from my neck upwards would hurt for so long, in such a tender, aching, grinding, metal-on-metal-on-flesh way, that to this day I cannot look at another person’s braces without wincing. Since nothing makes you dread an activity like an ironclad guarantee of pain, I began to fear my orthodontist appointments. I would put them on my calendar and circle them in red, then spend the week leading up to each appointment lying in my bed at night and quietly freaking out about it. I would tell myself to stop thinking about how much pain I was going to be in, and then I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about that pain, and then I’d get upset that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and just go to sleep, and then I wouldn’t be able to sleep because I was upset that I couldn’t go to sleep. Sure, I got to miss school to go to the appointment, but that wasn’t worth the anxiety leading up to the appointment and the monthlong pain following it. I tried to get out of my appointments using any means necessary, but it never worked.
Then one day my mom, who heard all my middle-of-the-night whimpers pre- and post–dental appointment, grabbed my shoulder as I cried and stomped around the kitchen, looked me in the eye, and said pleadingly, “I know it hurts, but we cannot keep doing this every time. Listen: I will take you to Taco Bell after every appointment for the rest of the time you have braces if you just stop carrying on about it.”
Taco Bell? TACO BELL. Forbidden, delicious Taco Bell, a fast food restaurant I wasn’t allowed to eat at because my mom was a super health nut, and Taco Bell was her antichrist. Her offering it to me as a reward was outrageous—it was like another parent allowing their kid to get a tattoo and a motorcycle. It was EVERYTHING.
Taco Bell became my lifeline, the only thing that got me through subsequent braces-tightenings. As I lay back in the orthodontist’s chair, white lights glaring into my eyes, gloved hands squeezing my braces tighter and tighter until the pain was fresh and new-edged again, I would think: I get to go to Taco Bell after this. I’m going to order a chalupa. And those cinnamon-twist things.
That was my first lesson in the power of rewards. A reward is a prize you dangle in front of yourself (or someone dangles in front of you) to get you to the other side of something difficult. What’s amazing is how effective this kind of out-in-the-open bribery can be. For instance, I’m writing this at my kitchen table, dressed in my most comfortable giant T-shirt, sitting directly in front of the air conditioner, drinking a fancy foo-foo soy latte flavored with rose syrup. I have been promising myself that I would do exactly this at this moment since I woke up. Seriously—I spent the whole day at my regular job telling myself that when I got home, I would finish writing this article, and in exchange I would get to do so in my giant T-shirt, over an overpriced coffee drink. Even though I write for a living, writing is hard for me, and something I have to make myself do, so the latte is my reward for actually sitting down to write. Other nights I’ll promise myself that when I’m done writing I’ll get to enjoy a long, bubbly bath, a single episode of Dance Moms, or half an hour of uninterrupted Candy Crush. I live my life this way—plotting out small rewards after each difficult thing I have to do.
You can make a reward out of anything—it doesn’t have to be big or cost money. Maybe you’re really shy, and you introduced yourself to a stranger at a party, even though your knees were shaking, or you just wrote a really gnarly paper for school. Don’t let these victories pass uncelebrated! How will you treat yourself: By going out with your friends for ice cream? Playing video games until you fall asleep with your hands still on the controller? Enjoying an extended snuggle with your cat on the couch after a hard day at school, or letting yourself sleep waaaaay in on Saturday and then waking up and reading a book for pleasure? There are so many hard things we have to do every day; some of them have intrinsic rewards (you study for your test –> you pass the test), but those rewards are rarely immediate. Part of why it’s hard to write your paper instead of watching a whole season of Bob’s Burgers online is that the gratification of a good grade on your paper is preceded by a chunk of time and a whole lot of work, while Bob’s Burgers is fun right now. To fool your brain’s impulse to lead you to the immediately fun activity, you can throw it a little short-term reward: Write an outline, get 10 minutes of TV. Write three or four pages, get another 10 minutes. And so on. Voilà—you’ve outsmarted your own brain, and now you get both the long-term benefit of having done this hard thing, and some fun little prizes along the way.
I wanted to know how other people treat themselves after doing something difficult, so I asked a few Rookie staff members. Of course they had great ideas.
Stephanie: After a slew of hard work, I’ll take over the bathroom for like two hours, bring my laptop, get in the tub with some Lush products, and blast my “Happy Happy Joy Joy” playlist, which includes Hole, Pink, Heart, and some guilty pleasures from the ’80s like Bon Jovi. I also reward myself with candy or ice cream at the end of every day, because you just should.
Gabby: I love learning, but I dread homework, so it feels good to just shut my brain off for a little bit after a huge deadline has passed. When I finish a chunk of homework, I binge-watch a new show on Netflix.
Naomi: My anxiety has been bad recently, but last Saturday I managed to get on a train and go into town by myself, even though I had a panic attack on the way. I had eyed up Benetint before, but this time I just BOUGHT IT, with no guilt at all. I was so proud of myself for getting to the shop! I thought about what Agent Cooper says on Twin Peaks about giving yourself a present every day, and I was proud because that was the first time I had successfully done it.
Jamia: When I have a hard day, I reward myself with mindless reality TV like Teen Mom, order takeout, burn sage, and put on a big African caftan before firmly implanting my ass on the couch and falling asleep on it. PURE SLACK feels so good.
Arabelle: I buy pretty bras to celebrate. A lot of bras.
See? Rewards make you feel good. When I’m done with a big project, or when I accomplish something I’ve been dreading like speaking in public, I love to reward myself by doing exactly what I want to do at that moment. Sometimes that means going dancing with my friends without thinking, I should be home writing right now; sometimes it’s going through my closet and trying on my clothes in different combinations to make new outfits. Sometimes it means trying a wild makeup tutorial, or doing one of the Rookie DIY tutorials I always bookmark but never find time to do. I’ll even reward myself for the smallest victories, like calling my parents. I know it’s important to call them, and it’s a victory for me to remember to do it on a regular basis, so if I call them on a Sunday night, which takes about 90 minutes because they both want to talk to me privately and refuse to use speakerphone so I have to repeat what’s happened during the week twice, I will reward myself with a lavish and detailed pedicure on my bathroom floor while we talk.
Knowing how to reward yourself can help you buckle down and do the not-so-fun things that will get you where you want to be, so let’s all learn a lesson from Donna and Tom, Pawnee, Indiana’s relaxation professionals:
(Don’t listen to Ben. You deserve this!) ♦