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Should You Punish Bad Behavior? The Answer May Surprise You

The psychology of teaching someone (or ourselves) a needed lesson.

Key points

  • Punishment, including self-punishment, can teach the wrong lesson and is different from consequences.
  • Even when we (or someone else) deserve to feel guilty, guilt can backfire and make people worse.
  • Punishment and shaming are motivated by anger and evening the score and do not promote positive behavior change.

"I did something bad—now what?"

Guilt can sometimes do its job as our conscience and help us realize we need to make things better. (For more on this topic: What is your guilt telling you?) But feeling bad for doing something wrong or having hurt someone is not an effective method of promoting proper action to do better and/or make amends. When guilt and suffering go awry, it can be consuming and take center stage as an end in and of itself, prompting emotional paralysis and self-absorption in place of growth and learning. (For help with getting unstuck: 10 Ways to Stop the Spiral of Shame and Self-Destructive Behaviors)

When Guilt Backfires (Even if We Deserve to Feel It)

Ba tik/Pexels
Source: Ba tik/Pexels

James, a bright and thoughtful young man, finally took the step of going to therapy to confess something he did when he was a teenager that he knew was reprehensible. He was haunted by shame and remorse and felt he deserved to suffer indefinitely for this transgression. These feelings led to addictive behaviors—as they often do—to escape the pain.

James’s therapist worked with him to try to understand what his intention, feelings, and mindset were when the transgression occurred. It was important to make his present-day values explicit, since this clash between his values and his behavior was the cause of his internal conflict. But, as the therapist supported him in letting go of destructive and self-punitive shame and guilt, she noticed her own internal conflict. Would doing so be condoning his behavior?

In reflecting on this question, the therapist reminded herself that excessive or chronic guilt actually interferes with empathy, judgment, and being able to take positive action. Though it’s counterintuitive, when guilt is used to punish oneself or inflicted on other people to control them, it is not effective if the goal is to improve behavior. Furthermore, excessive guilt and punishment can activate shame and destructive or self-destructive impulses, igniting prohibited behaviors. (For more on this topic: 10 Ways to Stop the Cycle of Shame and Self-Destructive Behavior)

But does this mean that we should let ourselves (or others) off the hook and allow bad behavior to be free of consequences or moral examination?

The Difference Between Punishment and Consequences (and Why It Matters)

Suffering did not help James become a better person and, in fact, distracted him from focusing on what was important. To help James do better, his treatment focused on what motivated his behavior at the time, the impact his transgression had on others, what his inner conflict meant, and how to bear that. Given his values, bearing the reality of the pain he caused and how he felt about it was the natural consequence. Once James could face this reality and not escape through shame, he was able to channel his remorse into determination to live up to his values in relationships and act in line with the person he wanted to be.

Consequences in this way require people to take responsibility for their actions and/or make amends. Consequences are neutral and are not motivated by anger. Positive behavior change, rather than suffering, is the goal.

Punishment, on the other hand, is usually motivated by anger and the desire to indulge (or inflict) shame and suffering for a perceived or actual wrongdoing. The mindset of punishment involves a focus on the issue of “deserving” it. We want the offender (whether ourselves or someone else) to suffer too. While it’s human to want to even the score, it’s important to keep in mind that suffering is not necessarily an impetus for positive growth and often leads to more unwanted behavior—as it did with James—increasing self-absorption, shame, and the need to escape. Furthermore, evening the score (to punish yourself or others), in spite of feeling (temporarily) “satisfying,” means you are still caught in being controlled by what happened, instead of solving the problem.

Diagnosing What Lesson Is Learned

When ruminating about how to punish someone (including yourself) and wanting to “teach a lesson,” ask yourself these questions: What is the real “lesson” that will be learned? What is your goal? What will be the actual impact, or effect, of the punishment? Punishing and shaming children, for example, gives them a shame-based sense of self and often leads to secret rebellion. They may in fact behave better, but the lesson they learn is how to avoid punishment by going inward, concealing, and covering up. Furthermore, it teaches them to be obedient rather than think for themselves (which they will then do in other relationships, too—not just with you).

How Can We Tell if the Guilt That We Harbor (or Inflict) Is Pathological?

The answer lies in how guilt affects our relationships, what “lesson” we really take away, and whether it inspires constructive change (or pulls us into a vortex of shame and/or addictive behavior).

Healthy guilt is conscience with an action plan beyond suffering.

Recovery Is Key

Football 7721622/Pixabay
Source: Football 7721622/Pixabay

Team sports give us a good model for how people can handle feeling bad about something they did but recover and do better. Sometimes good players make a bad play late in the game, costing the team victory. In the postgame interview, it’s clear that they feel bad for letting their teammates down. But, at the same time, they know that the most meaningful apology is recovering so they can score again, rather than focusing on feeling bad and beating themselves up. In a parallel way, their teammates seem to instinctively know to give them a pat on the back and tell them to get back in the game so they can help them win the season.

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