Punishing #2

In the last blog I went on about how we can end up with a deep-set, subconscious belief that bad behavior results in punishment, aka bad behavior results in discomfort/pain, and therefore  discomfort/pain must result from bad behavior. In other words: if we’re suffering, we deserve it.

Here I’m going to list ways in which I see people punishing themselves and others that I think stem from that subconscious belief. I might be wrong. If you find yourself doing this kind of thing to yourself or others, though, you might wanna have a think about where it’s all coming from. And if you find yourself doing it to yourself but never to others – oh hell no! – then you definitely want to have a think, and maybe a chat with an expert in brain-unfucking.

Punishing genuine mistakes. Example: you trip while walking, so you drop your food on the floor, and then you get punished for it. I don’t care about what the punishment actually is. I don’t care about the rationalisations used to back it up. The whole thing is inherently bullshit because you didn’t trip up on purpose. There may be natural consequences to your action: people may be unwilling to replace the food you lost, and if you dirtied someone’s coat in the process you may have to pay for the dry-cleaning. However, adding extra punishment to those natural consequences is just putting the boot in. If it teaches you anything is that making mistakes is way too costly. If you wanna raise children paralysed by their own anxiety of fucking anything up, that’s one of the ways of doing it.

Punishing anything that already caused suffering. Example: you tripped and dropped your food. You have now lost your food. You are foodless. And now you’re getting punished on top of that, as if being foodless wasn’t already a punishment.

Punishing genuine mistakes that already caused suffering. This applies to the example above and makes it exponentially shittier. You didn’t trip up on purpose, you didn’t drop your food on purpose, you now have lost your food, AND someone’s laying into you because of that? Fuck that noise. Fuck it with fire.

This kind of punishment may sound like extreme and obviously bullshit, but it’s endemic in our society, though often less overt. How many people fail a test and are punished for it? How many parents or institutions bother to check whether that person failed on purpose, out of lack of interest or effort, or whether they were victims of circumstance? How many bother to check whether that person is already suffering because they really, really didn’t want to fail?

[I had this at work, for months and months. According to my boss, I was failing to meet certain performance standards, which impacted on my wage. The issue, as I saw it, is that he set those standards without having ever done the work, so they were pie in the sky. Because I don’t like to fuck shit up, however unrealistic said shit is, I was already extremely upset by the whole thing. The wage issue was an additional spray of diarrhoea on a giant, festering shitcake. However, I am also rabid and lacking a basic instinct for self-preservation, so I eventually ended up going up to my boss and telling him that either we needed to get HR involved because I was lazy and failing, or we needed to get HR involved because I was being overworked and failing. What I didn’t know at the time is that HR doesn’t necessarily stand with the person who’s in the right… but that’s another story.]

Turning a one-off mistake into a character flaw. You tripped up and dropped your food, hence you are Clumsy or Careless or a Spaz. (Before you yell at me, I went to school in the 80s. That’s what I got called, not only by my schoolmates but by my teachers. That’s what I still call myself when I don’t pay attention.) This, for many people, is a punishment in itself, but we can easily double up on it. Because you are Clumsy, we can’t possibly let you have nice things, because you’d only break them. Because you are a Spaz, if you do badly in PE we won’t bother to check if there is a valid reason for it (e.g. injury, illness), and if you do well we’ll just chalk it down to extreme good luck rather than any actual effort on your part and mark you down accordingly.

Punishing you forever. You tripped up and spilled your lunch at the age of four. You were sent to bed without dinner for doing that. Now you’re umpteen years older, but the story of your Dreadful Food Spillage and your Malignant Carelessness still gets wheeled out every time someone’s pissed off at you. The punishment didn’t close the book on your alleged misbehavior: you will pay for that mistake forever. Have fun with that.

Punishing you for finding things hard. You should be better than that, so if you’re struggling we must treat you like shit because of it, obviously. The fact that being punished for struggling can actually make you struggle more, so the behavior is inherently anti-useful, is immaterial.

[Personal example: I can’t journal. I really ought to journal because it would help with working out what impacts on my SAD, but every time I try I freak the fuck out because why am I having to monitor shit that other people just get on with every fucking day without even thinking about it? I mean, seriously, what the fuck is WRONG with me? In case you were wondering, this is next-level toxic.]

Punishing you for finding things easy. You did a thing, and you did it well, so obviously that thing is bullshit and you are bullshit and everything about you is bullshit. If it was worth doing, it would have been hard. And you dare to expect that anyone should appreciate the thing you did, or you feel self-congratulatory about it? Shame on you.

This is super fun when you combine it with punishment for finding things hard. It creates a lovely space where you can’t possibly win: if you do well, what you are doing is worthless, and if you do badly, you are worthless.


All of the above is even more fun if you do it to yourself. Walking away from your internal voices is pretty damn hard.

There is probably a bunch more fucked-up ways in which we let people use “punishment” to fuck us up, or fuck ourselves up with it. This is all I can think of right now, and frankly I’ve had enough of thinking about it and I’m going to go off and wash my brain in bleach. If you’ve got anything to add, please make free with the comments section.


3 thoughts on “Punishing #2

  1. When the rules keep randomly changing

    When the rules are sufficiently arcane as to be incomprehensible, but no-one will actually explain them

    When there’s a second set of rules going on beneath the surface – especially if these are essentially to screw over everyone else not privy to this level


    When a group’s “rules” are completely different from mainstream, but they think they’re mainstream (that might need an example – got told in an Online Game that Guilds are not meant for the members to talk to each other in game; the entire Guild believed this to be both true and the norm)

    When someone else is really bad at something but you think it’s your fault. Social skills are a big one – they don’t know how to have a conversation without it becoming awkward, but you think it’s your fault that every conversation you have with them is awkward. Or they act as if it’s your fault.

    Pass the bleach please.


      • How about this: when the better you do, the better you’re expected to do and the more you’re supposed to take on, so not only your standards are higher than anyone else’s but end up taking on increasing chunks of their workload. Until you finally crumble because giving 110% is actually a physical impossibility, and then you can be punished for letting everyone down.


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