Self-punishment might sound like a strange concept: why would we want to make ourselves feel bad? Logically, it doesn’t make any sense—but we do it all the time. Here’s the scary part: you may not even know you’re doing it. We punish ourselves in so many ways, some of which don’t seem intentional at all. Have you ever procrastinated until you couldn’t possibly finish a task on time? Has there been a time when you said no to exciting opportunities? Did you talk yourself out of spending time on essential self-care activities, like exercise and taking the time to eat nutritious food? Have you told yourself over and over again that you aren’t good enough? If so, you may be punishing yourself, without even knowing that’s what you’re doing.
Let’s change that.
Why We Punish Ourselves
Before you try to stop punishing yourself, let’s dig into why we self-punish in the first place.
First, many people punish themselves for past mistakes. They internalize things that happened in the past and try to avoid experiencing that pain again in many different ways. That might mean avoiding doing work that could be judged by others, not making the “right” kind of progress, or failing at something important. This is the mind trying to protect us from pain, but it can end up sabotaging healthy and productive activities.
If we experience enough negative feedback or failure, it starts to feel like we’re the problem—that we should be punished for our own problems. This isn’t usually the case, but many people start self-punishing for this reason—and then feel worse as a result. Self-esteem and confidence can take a hit, and people can become isolated after spiraling into a pattern of self-punishment. It’s common for people to think they “deserve” to suffer, or that suffering will bring about positive changes and enlightenment. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what happens.
How to Stop Destructive Self-Punishment
So how do you quit this destructive behavior? You probably already know that it’s not as easy as just stopping. Your subconscious is powerful, and can take over your conscious thoughts with ease—that’s how you start punishing yourself in the first place. Everyone is different, so methods for reversing self-punishment don’t have the same effects on everyone. However, there are some basic steps you can take to start the process and open yourself up to letting go of self-sabotage.
1. Dig into what’s really behind the punishment
The hardest part of stopping yourself from self-punishment is the first step: figuring out what’s behind the behavior. First, identify which behavior is destructive, and think about what might be behind the fears and punishment. Did you have an experience once that should have been positive (like being part of a sports team), but then turned negative (like a negative coach who was overly critical)? Did you once fail to deliver on a project, or let down a friend? Try to find the patterns in your behavior and dig into what’s behind them. Understanding the why behind your self-punishment is crucial. Write it all down!
2. Talk to someone
Once you’ve thought about why you engage in this destructive behavior, consider talking to someone. A counselor or therapist is ideal, but a trusted friend can also help. Sometimes just discussing your fears can help you overcome them.
3. Create a new story
If your self-punishment is related to fear of pain, it’s time to create a new story. If you’re procrastinating, take the worst case scenario of completing the work, then flip it around. What could happen if you finished the project? Worst case, you could complete it poorly. Best case, you could really impress your boss. Worth the risk, isn’t it? You know your own capabilities, but fear can hold you back.
4. Make actionable, realistic goals
Don’t set yourself up for failure by taking on too much. Set realistic goals you can act on right away and your confidence will have an opportunity to grow.
It Takes Ongoing Effort
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for ending self-punishment. It’s a journey that takes ongoing effort, reassessment and reminders to succeed. We all have insecurities and pain that can stir up self-punishment, so it’s important to remember that this is a normal—and difficult—process that almost everyone goes through. Just take it one step at a time. What will set you apart is awareness of what’s going on—and the power to change it.
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Andrew Deen has been a consultant for startups in almost every industry from retail to medical devices and everything in between. He is currently writing a book about scaling up business and his experience implementing lean methodology.