Psychology

  • Issue 67 / January - February 2009



    Memoirs of a Former Gossip

    Sumeyra Tosun

    What you are about to read is the diary of a former gossip who felt bad about her "uncontrollable" negative behavior and so tried to modify it. Those who suffer from similar problems, such as anxiety, smoking, drinking, unwanted weight gain, ineffective time management, or depression may find inspiration in this diary, as well as new ideas about ways to get rid of undesirable habits. I am one hundred percent sure that if a person really wants to change, he or she can. The keys are motivation and a little bit of knowledge. Otherwise, God would not ask us to change our old, beaten paths to conform to His Straight Path.

    Day 1: I have finally decided to make some changes in myself. For a long time, I have been troubled about my social and spiritual life. I have been losing sincerity in my relationship with God and my relationships with other people because of the same problem-gossiping. I have spent, actually wasted, too much time talking behind people’s backs. What is more, after doing that, I feel obliged to act "nice" to those people about whom I gossiped. This double-dealing lifestyle has lowered my self-esteem day by day. But, to me, the worst result of this habit has been its damage to the relationship between me and God. In the Qur’an, God asks backbiters, "Would any of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother?" Then He warns us, "Keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety" (49:12). Nevertheless, I have been gossiping at the expense of incurring the Wrath of God! Clearly, I need to do something to avoid reaping all these negative consequences in my life.

    Day 2: Even though I have decided to eliminate my gossiping behavior, still I need to define "gossiping" as clearly and specifically as I can. In other words, I need to have an operational definition for the behavior; then I will know its limits, which acts or words constitute gossiping; and I will be able to observe and measure it. Here is my definition of "gossiping": when a person is not present, saying, mimicking or listening to anything about him or her which would make him or her sad, angry or offended if he or she were to hear it, even if what is said is true. My goal is to eliminate gossiping by decreasing the time and frequency of my gossiping. In order to know whether or not I have accomplished my goal, I need to collect baseline data, that means, how long and how frequently I am presently gossiping when I do not take any action to stop myself. If I know this, then I can measure the effectiveness of my remedies. For this reason, I made a timetable to collect my data each day, by recording my gossiping time in minutes and my gossiping frequency as the number of times I gossiped.

    Day 3: Today I decided to use the ABC model as a behavioral modification method because this model has been used to change various negative behaviors, such as anxiety and weight gain, and because its effectiveness has been demonstrated in many studies. In this model, A refers to antecedents, which mean everything that triggers the behavior; B refers to behavior, which means the behavior that is to be changed; and C refers to consequence, which means the results of the behavior, be they positive or negative. These three components directly influence our behaviors; therefore, if I intend to modify one of them, I will need to take all three into account, and shape my plan and determine my steps accordingly. Hence, while I am observing myself, I am also going to observe my ABCs and record them.

    Day 4: Today I thought about the short- and long-term advantages and disadvantages of my decision. In the short term, since I will feel more honest in my relations with others, I will be more comfortable when interacting with them; however, since I won’t be able to tell them what I am really thinking at the time, I will probably feel tense, and it will be hard for me to keep what I think inside me. In the long term, since my main reason for stopping gossiping is to be a better person, a "vessel of love," just as God wants a good believer to become, I will be progressing on a road on which servants become worthy of forgiveness and mercy. Besides this, my self-esteem, which has been lowered due to my two-facedness, will be reinstated. When I think about the consequences of behavior modification this way, I realize that success in my goal will be a very lucrative trade.

    Day 7: I am still keeping records of my gossiping behavior and its antecedents and consequences. When I checked my baseline data, I was absolutely shocked. I had not known that I had been wasting so much time gossiping. I realized that whenever my friends and I get together for any kind of reason, or when people do or say something to me that makes me sad or angry, or when I see somebody whom I really do not like, I begin to judge or criticize those people and talk about them behind their backs. Now I have decided I need to block the antecedents to gossiping, so that I can reduce the length and frequency of my undesirable behavior.

    Day 8: I have identified two important antecedents that trigger my undesirable behavior. First, whenever I become sad or angry at somebody, I look for somebody else, usually my friends, to talk to about the situation that has made me feel bad. By the end of the conversation, we always find ourselves gossiping. Since it is not always possible to avoid gossiping once in a conversation, only one thing remains in my hands: to refrain from looking for somebody to talk to. Keeping this in mind, I have asked all of my friends to warn me when I begin to gossip; also I have decided to distract myself when I am angry by leaving our home, walking along the bayou or doing any kind of diversionary activity until I calm down and can control what I tell my friends. In this way, I hope to break the chain of antecedents which directly leads me to talk behind people’s backs.

    Day 11: Today I woefully admit that this preventative measure has not been helpful enough so far, even though it seems to work a little bit at first. I need to use some new antecedents to reduce my gossiping behavior. First of all, I will eliminate negative self-statements, such as, "It is beyond my power. I cannot stop it." Instead, I will start giving myself positive instructions which remind me of my long-term goal and how capable I am of achieving it. In addition, I will try to replace my negative thoughts about other people with positive ones, so that I can lessen my anger, which is the first ring in my chain of antecedents. I hope that these measures will work.

    Day 15: It seems that I am getting the show on the road at last, even though I still have not been able reach my goal, the zero point. I think I need to do something about my Bs. According to scholars, it is best to develop a new desirable behavior, rather than to merely suppress an old one. Hence, I need to choose a new behavior which corresponds to my initial goal. This new behavior should be incompatible with my undesirable behavior. To combat my bad habit, I have decided now to state at least three positive things about the people about whom I gossip-per gossiping session. In addition to this, I am going to try to stop my friends as well when they begin to gossip.

    Day 17: Before I set to work on this, I knew that changing my habits would be difficult and stressful; however, I had no idea how nerve-wracking it would really be. These days, I am always trying to keep myself under control, to distract myself, and to clamp the lid on talking as I desire. By the end of the day, I find that I become really exhausted and tense. While I was looking for a solution to this situation, I realized that I already have the key: meditation, which is a great way of combating physical and mental stress. Actually, my regular, daily prayers, which come five times a day, provide golden opportunities for me to meditate and relax. When praying, I can both concentrate fully on my prayers, gaining strength in my relationship with my Lord, and also, I hope, decrease my stress level.

    Day 19: As I guessed, my prayers are really helping me to feel calmer and more peaceful. Today I decided to try an additional relaxation method called "imagined rehearsal." Basically, it is a combination of breathing, muscular relaxation and desensitization techniques. First, I tried to control the muscles of my body, from my head to my toe, by tensing and relaxing them intentionally. The next step was to do imaginary rehearsals of the situations that tempt me to gossip. I imagined a situation in my daily life in which somebody was acting in a way that drives me crazy; and I imagined my behavior in complete, minute detail-that I was controlling myself so I kept my mouth shut and even saying something positive about her. This simulation made me really tense and nervous, but then, I relaxed by using the relaxation method that I practiced before. Then I did the same rehearsal again and again until I became desensitized to the situation. Now I feel that if I really face the same situation, I will feel more comfortable and be able to control my reaction easily.

    Day 22: Finally, it seems that it is time to harvest my grapes. According to my records, even though sometimes I have some relapses, my gossiping frequency and time is lessening. At least, I have never returned to my baseline level. I never expected to wave a magic wand and have my bad habit disappear immediately. Still, I need to reach a more stable condition and, of course, zero point, if it is possible. Even though two hopes-gaining the pleasure of God and lightening the burden of my transgressions against the rights of others-have motivated me to quit my undesirable behavior, I feel I need some more immediate, tangible motivators. I have decided to introduce some positive reinforcements into my environment, to be had whenever I do something worthy. But I have not defined the procedure yet.

    Day 23: I have thought about my reinforcement procedure, and finally, I have given it shape. First, I am not going to use either positive or negative reinforcements alone. Punishment, in particular, is a temporary solution and only motivates one to avoid a certain behavior. It cannot provide me motivation to gain a new, desirable behavior. Also, punishment can sometimes cause relapses, which are usually worse than the old behavior pattern. Therefore, I am going to utilize a positive reinforcement system; and only if I need it, am I going to apply negative punishment to myself, by withdrawing some desirable things from my environment, (rather than positive punishment, whereby undesirable things are introduced into the environment). I am going to use a token system for my reinforcement process. Each time I make positive statements about others, I will gain 1 token; each time I successfully refrain from talking behind people’s backs, I will gain 2 tokens; and if I gossip, I will lose 2 of the tokens which I have already earned. I have made a list of the things or activities which would be reinforcement for me, and I have given each of them a value. For example, a cup of fruppachino costs 10 tokens, and each minute of my favorite TV show costs a token; so, for a 40 minute show I need to collect 40 tokens.

    Day 26: I have finally got used to the token system, and it has started to work. I am really working hard and always keeping my token account in mind, especially since I missed this week’s episode of my favorite show-a miserable situation! Also, my friends have realized how determinedly I have been working on my no-more-gossip project. They have started to help me by warning me as soon as I open my mouth-because they knew what comes next-and by praising me when I put positive thoughts into words despite all my fury at the person involved. Actually, I am being reinforced verbally by my considerate friends; my motivators are doubled right now. Moreover, my friends are now also watching their own attitudes and behaviors to help me in the process, which makes me feel like I am in seventh heaven. In fact, my motivators are tripled.

    Day 31: Only one day after I began to thank God that my troubles with gossiping were finally all over, I lapsed and gossiped. Actually, these lapses have occurred throughout the modification process and have sometimes pushed me to the brink of despair, just as the lapse today did. Sometimes other people have discouraged my use of these methods, and sometimes I have even discouraged myself by not believing that the techniques would help me or that I could attain my goal. Also, since I have been trying to resist the temptation to gossip for long time, constant self-control has fatigued me. In times of great fatigue, the only anchor for me has been my prayers and my appeals to God for patience and power. I have always tried to bear in my mind that I am doing this only for the good pleasure of God. I have kept on doing my imagined rehearsal, not only to relax, but also to remind myself of my long-term goal and reward, and to motivate myself when I am burnt out. Also, I have tried to remain in a positive mood in order to avoid hopelessness. I have tried to increase my coping and problem-solving skills, and used them actively whenever I needed to. Thankfully, all these efforts have prevented my lapses from becoming relapses, and it really has worked. When I look back, I see that I have covered ground and that I am almost done. The next goal for me now is to preserve the new behavior pattern as a habit, so that even as time passes, my new habit will be protected.

    Day 35: Since I have reached my goal, I am terminating my project today; but it doesn’t mean that I am giving up everything. On the contrary, since I want to maintain the habit of not gossiping for a lifetime, I am going to carry on keeping records for a while, and reinforce the behavior with external motivators until it becomes stable. Then, in order to make my new habit even stronger, I am going to change my reinforcing procedure to intermittent reinforcing by using a variable-ratio schedule, which means that I will gain reinforcements in a variable ratio. For example, sometimes a frappuccino will be worth 7 tokens, and sometimes 10 tokens. After my reactions start occuring automatically, I will no longer need to reward myself or expect external motivation from others. Besides, I think that if I increase my participation in beneficial activities and forms of socializing, I will be so busy I will not even want to waste my time gossiping anymore. I have decided to be a better-organized person and to spend more time participating in beneficial activities, such as voluntary service. Hopefully, I will have a satisfied mind and better fulfill my duty as a servant of God.
    Acknowledgment: During the modification process, I benefited from David L. Watson and Roland G. Tharp’s book, Self-Directed Behavior. I greatly appreciate all their helpful information and methods.

    Sumeyra Tosun is completing her Master’s degree on criminal psychology in Houston, Texas.




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