Self-punishment does not work.
It does not change behavior, and it does not course-correct. Self-punishment is a response we manufacture — and, usually, it’s far worse than the natural consequences of a mistake (which is why we have to manufacture it in the first place).
Self-punishment does not work. When it seems like it works, it’s only because something else has awakened your self-awareness, triggered empathy, or activated self-discipline.
Self-punishment itself does not do what it promises, not by a long shot.
If you have a habit of punishing yourself, you likely do so through a process of overreacting to mild to moderate failures, flaws, and disappointments.
You are, essentially, overcorrecting yourself. Overcorrection is not a means of pushing yourself to meet high standards; instead, it’s a way to devalue yourself, close yourself off to connection, and avoid being vulnerable by remaining a “work in progress.”
How to Stop Overcorrecting Your Life
Self-improvement has a dark side, and you’ve probably already fallen for it
Self-punishment looks like:
- Overreacting to mild or moderate imperfections
- Self-isolating until you’re “good enough”
- Overexercising or overworking
- Following a minor slipup or mistake with extremely negative thoughts
- Focusing solely on your flaws and disregarding your strengths
- Forcing yourself to consistently engage in behavior that is exhausting, unhealthy, or simply undesired to pursue a goal that is probably unhealthy in itself
- Believing you need to earn love
- Believing you need to earn worth
To begin the work of unraveling your self-punishing behaviors, you must begin to think of yourself as both your inner parent and inner child. This will help you make sense of what’s going on in your psyche.
We punish to avoid connection
Punishment is the opposite of connection. When we self-punish as adults, it may be because, at some point, we were overpunished by someone in our childhood. They were doing so to avoid a connection with us.
Years later, we overcorrect ourselves to avoid rejection. If we reject ourselves first, we believe we can stay “safe.”
Of course, this doesn’t work, and here’s why:
- Punishment focuses your energy on how you feel and not how other people feel. In this way, punishment weakens your sense of empathy, making you more defensive and self-centered.
- Punishment makes you betray yourself. It does not make you obey your unreasonable rules and expectations; instead, it encourages you to find excuses, loopholes, and “escapes.”
- Punishment erodes your moral compass. When you are overcorrecting benign or only mildly negative behaviors, you begin to react to genuine misdeeds with a similar intensity and judgment. You no longer have an accurate gauge of what is and isn’t acceptable.
- Self-punishment makes you punish others. If you see someone else engaging in a behavior similar to your own, you’ll start punishing them because it will seem unbearable to witness their happiness and freedom when you’ve imprisoned yourself for the same character trait, behavior, or action.
The truth about self-punishment is this:
- It does not help you grow; it keeps you stuck in negativity.
- It keeps you focused on enduring your own consequences, not actual problem-solving.
- It convinces you that you’re a bad person, which becomes a subconscious belief that pervades many areas of your life.
- You become more domineering overall.
- It makes you more inclined to abuse other forms of power.
- It strains your relationships.
- It makes you distrust yourself and believe that an “authority figure” (yourself or someone else) is controlling your behavior as opposed to you being an autonomous being capable of choosing between right and wrong.
How to stop self-punishing
Nobody is perfect. We’ve all make mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. Being able to course-correct is essential to growth, self-awareness, and living a happy and fulfilled life.
However, there’s a way to course-correct that don’t involve overreacting or harming oneself.
Think in realistic cause and effect
Instead of making catastrophic assumptions about our mistakes, we can learn to think in simple, logical terms of cause and effect.
If we don’t get around to doing all of our work this afternoon, well, we might not be able to relax all day on Saturday. This doesn’t mean we’re incompetent, about to be fired, or have ruined our weekends. It just means we’ve made a choice, and there are consequences to it.
If we focus on a physical flaw, we can acknowledge that nobody is perfect, and everyone has a combination of strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is perceiving our flaws as drastically as we are, and by focusing on them with tunnel vision, we aren’t seeing ourselves realistically.
Learning to think logically can help counteract strong emotional overreactions — even if the feeling is still present, your ability to mentally sort through it is essential.
Imagine how your actions might affect other people
Almost anything is okay as long as it doesn’t intentionally or unintentionally hurt someone else.
That’s why we need to think of consequences, not punishments. The consequence of an action might hurt someone else — and if that’s the case, we need to seriously evaluate our motives.
Instead of focusing solely on how your mistakes or imperfections might possibly devalue you in some way, think instead about how your actions, words, and beliefs may be hurting others.
When we learn to move the spotlight away from ourselves and toward others, we find that we can be kinder, more empathetic, and more compassionate — not only to them but to ourselves, too.
Instead of imagining what punishment you’ll inflict upon yourself when you do or don’t make a given choice, think instead of what the natural consequence might be. This will more accurately tell you whether or not it’s okay.
Self-discipline is the opposite of self-punishment. When we self-punish, we make ourselves “pay” for our mistakes, often unnecessarily, while self-discipline is how we actually correct those mistakes.
Rather than simply beating ourselves up for not doing better, self-discipline is a way to manage our responses, adapt our behavior, and focus on tolerating the right type of discomfort — the type that moves us forward instead of holding us back.
Remember the golden rule
Respect others and respect yourself. As long as you’re following both of those rules, almost anything is fair game.
Because life is complex, we often cling to intense rules and ideas that make us feel safe. Remember that everyone is on their own journey. As long as you’re kind to yourself and to others, you’re probably doing better than you think.