Punishing Myself: Why We’re So Hard on Ourselves and How We Can Stop

Can you recall a time in your life when you let down someone whom you admired? When you did, what was that individual’s reaction? Did she or he berate you or did she or he tell you how disappointed they were in you? Did they make you feel insignificant or did they let you know that they believed you were better?

The ways in which important authority figures respond to our misdeeds are crucial to the formations of the ways in which we respond to our own. If you can recall moments when benevolent figures provided you with helpful, although somewhat painful, feedback, I imagine that you can also easily remember a time when a less gregarious person ridiculed you. I asked one of my clients to recall both instances and to tell me what he thought of each person and which method he believed was superior. In the first instance, he noted that he desired to be in that authority figure’s good graces, so he chose to attempt to compensate for his mistake. In the second, he absorbed the punishment but considered the other authority figure to be an asshole, and nothing changed.

So why didn’t it if the second punishment was apparently worse?

If you look at Catholic guilt and the entire enterprise of confession, you’ll realize that growth isn’t the goal. In Catholicism, all humans are inherently bad, so the most they can do is expose their wickedness, face the punishment of revelation and, thus, embarrassment, and move on to resume their sinful lives. This form of punishment is also the means, but the end is relief. As for my client, harsh punishments were preferable and easier to tolerate because, if he were inherently bad, he could simply accept his “badness” and continue to live as before. If he didn’t respect himself or the authority figure, where was the motivator for growth? Wasn’t there supposed to be at least one?

Most of the time, most of us treat us ourselves like shit or, one can argue, as though we were good Catholics. Our goals are punishment and subsequent relief partially because we don’t believe in our potential to change. Although on the surface it appears that the harsher punishment is the more repugnant one, some of us learn to prefer it as it confirms what we believe about ourselves, letting us off the hook in the process. In essence, hating yourself is easier than trying.

While punishments may look the same, the distinctions between them are important. Sometimes, people believe that the harsher forms of self-treatment foster significant change, that in debunking themselves, or in being their own worst enemies, the friction engenders achievement. But, more often than not, the friction creates intolerable suffering. For some, it works in the short-term, but most eventually burn out. So, what do you want, growth or relief? Do you merely want to serve your time and pay for your sins or is maturity possible and even desirable? Do you want to continue to confess how terrible you are or do you believe that there’s a point to your fuck-ups?

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