This is something I’m currently playing with (again: I talked about it in July. It keeps coming back up.). It’s something I increasingly see as a problem in myself and others, possibly because I’m more on the lookout for it. I don’t have a solution to it yet other than “just don’t”, which isn’t terribly useful. I might be wrong. I might be onto something brilliant, but that I’ll never be able to apply to my own life. We’ll see.
Pretty much all of us grow up thinking that we know what “punishment” means. The problems start when we go past the standard dictionary definition of the word, or even some of the more specialist definitions – or rather, when we think that we can do that. Even when we are using a strict definition of the term, most of us have a cosmo of associated thoughts and feelings that we have attached (or have attached themselves) to the term. Many of those thoughts and feelings may be extremely fuzzy and sometimes obviously irrational. The thing is, most of us learnt about punishment when we were tiny tots, quite possibly pre-verbal. Now we are trying to plug in a rational, narrow term to what can be a tornado of feelings and experiences in our head, many of which are subconscious.
The best introduction I know of to how our concept of punishment can trip us up internally is in the Caine’s Law: Book 4 of the Acts of Caine series by Matthew Stover. I’d recommend those books to everyone, except that they are extremely violent, that the part in question turns up in the fourth book of the trilogy (no, really), that it is a two-page dialogue buried in literally hundreds of pages, that you won’t get a feeling for what it means if you read it out of context, and that the whole series is brilliant, but fucking hard work and definitely not for everybody, as per demonstrated by its reviews. I read that fourth book four times back-to-back when I first landed on it, and not for lack of other things I wanted to read. And then I read the entire four-part trilogy again. I literally go to sleep with the audiobook playing every night. It works for me. It might not work for you. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean that you are somehow fucking up by not getting it; it just means that we’re wired differently. Believe me, that is NOT a bad thing.
The crux of the matter is that most people are brought up to think that when they are getting punished it is for something they have done, so the punishment is something that they deserve. The link created is bad behavior => punishment, aka bad behavior => discomfort/pain. The problem can be when we flip that equation the other way round, so that when we are experiencing discomfort or pain we assume that it’s because we have done something to deserve that.
Yes, that makes no sense. Yes, part of growing up is understanding that the world doesn’t work like that, that it isn’t fair, that sometimes things happen for no reason, that terrible things happen to good people, etc. Or is it?
There are plenty of systems and people that insist that punishment IS proof of bad behavior. Some do so with the intent to hurt us, some to help us, and some to maintain the status quo. Many abusers will tell their victims that “they made them do it,” or that “it’s for their own good.” That is an obviously malignant use of the concept, but it isn’t unique. Many religions teach us that if something bad happens to us it is an act of god, and there is a reason for it; even if our pain isn’t a punishment per se, it is a test, something we mustn’t fuck up. Institutions will insist that they deal with us fairly, that we have nothing to fear unless we are at fault; for instance, that the guilty go to jail and the innocent are set free. As long as we are Good People, we should have nothing to fear from the police, or the HR department, or the principal of our school. Well-meaning people try to smooth out the bumps in our lives (or to smooth out the effects of our bumps on their lives, more like) by telling us that everything happens for a reason, that what doesn’t kill us make us stronger, blah blah blah. Sometimes this stuff helps us find courage in the moment and sometimes it doesn’t, but it all contributes to maintaining that connection: bad behavior = pain, pain = bad behavior.
We might rationally understand that this is bullshit, but that may not help us much. If we’ve not removed that equation from our subconscious, our six-month-old self who got yelled at for barfing on mother’s favourite shawl is going to sabotage the hell out of us. The kid knows where it’s at: mother is not just our carer but our god, the source of everything that is good and the ultimate authority on what is bad.* She is the ultimate authority source, incapable of error. If she tells us we’re bad, then we are, regardless of what we think we know on the subject.
We can try and think our way out of this, but that may or may not work because we never thought our way INTO this. What’s likely to happen is that we will overtly think rationally, while being led by the nose by our subconscious thoughts and feelings on the matter. The more we insist that we’ve got it, that those irrational thoughts could never affect us, the more they’ll fuck us up. The fallacies that mess you up the most are those you refuse to accept you’re prone to.
Aside from messing up our own heads, and sometimes our lives, our subconscious context for “punishment” can completely obliterate any hope of us having useful conversations on the subject. We think we all know what we are talking about, and that we are all talking about the same thing, but a buttload of times we don’t.
[*Entirely irrelevant aside: sometimes, when I want to scare the crap out of myself, I think about what it must feel like for narcissists to have a child, to finally have someone who recognises them as the centre of the universe, to finally be at the receiving end of the appropriate level of adulation… and then to see that child grow up and start to erode that arrangement. How far would they be willing to go not to lose that feeling?]