Do you feel stuck in chronic self-punishment? Do you reflexively turn against yourself with anger or scorn whenever you feel embarrassment, a lack of control, rejection or failure? Do you yell at yourself, call yourself names, cut off from people who care about you or neglect your physical needs? Do you sometimes even feel compelled to inflict physical harm on yourself?
Have you tried to tell yourself that this pattern is not constructive, but find that you still cannot seem to stop beating yourself up? Do remind yourself you are lovable and valuable, but still continue to self-attack?
You are not alone.
Self-punishment is so persistent because it is an all-purpose defense against the pain of life. And life is full of pain. We have strong needs for connection, acceptance, success, and approval, but we are faced with the reality that sometimes people reject us, get disappointed with us, and put their needs ahead of ours. People we love suffer and die and our life dreams do not always come true.
When we feel this pain, we build up energy because we are wired to try to do something about it. This energy can be experienced internally as anger or even rage. It motivates us to reach out to get comfort for our pain and it drives us to get back out there and try again to get what we want or need.
What if, however, we have been repeatedly and consistently shot down, or ignored or scorned or attacked for trying to get our needs met, or neglected when we have asked for comfort, or abused when we have tried to use our power?
Here is where self-punishment comes in. When reaching out into the world no longer feels safe or helpful, we take our anger and rage and turn it back onto ourselves. We begin to believe, on an unconscious level, that ‘I am the problem. When I feel rejection or failure, it is my fault and I must punish myself.’ Our resulting self-attacking behaviors therefore do not reflect our desire to feel pain; much to the contrary, they are our hope for fixing the pain by sufficiently punishing its cause – our selves.
Instead of solving our problems, however, our self-attacks leave us beaten down and isolated. We become decreasingly connected to other people and increasingly imprisoned within our self-punishment. We become so familiar with our habit of attacking ourselves that it starts to feel like a permanent part of who we are. Trying to change it may even feel unsafe.
Our anger at ourselves might consume us and distract us from being present and engaged with our lives. Our relationships, our connections to our bodies, and our drives toward creative or professional development could get derailed or weighed down by the vice grip of continual self-punishing. We can lose sight of what we truly want and need. We are at risk for getting horribly off track and making poor choices, trying to escape with drugs or alcohol, developing destructive habits with food, and then feeling even more reason to punish ourselves as we start to regret our behaviors.
So how do we liberate ourselves from our self-punishing tendencies?
First of all, we need to recognize that self-punishment may be so deeply entrenched that no amount of telling ourselves to be nice to ourselves is going to make much difference. In fact, it might cause us to be even more self-punishing when, in our usual self-attacking way, we get mad at ourselves for failing at being nice to ourselves!
We also must move beyond a focus on self-esteem. It may seem logical that if we could just find self-love and acceptance, then we would start being nicer to ourselves. Creating a more positive sense of self is, of course, critically important for improving our health and well-being; self-punishment, however, is far more complex than a lack of self-esteem.
Moving beyond self-punishment becomes possible when we get the help that we need to navigate in a new way when we feel pain. Instead of relying on self-attacks, we practice leaning on others to comfort us and soothe our pain. We begin to internalize this comforting feeling and become increasingly capable of self-soothing. We develop compassion for our pain and acceptance of our many human needs.
Over time, we find that we have resilience to manage the pain of real life and the skill to identify and pursue what we want and need. Courageously, we release ourselves from self-punishment and turn our energy back out into the world.