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Let's Stop Punishing Ourselves

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

One of the biggest obstacles to living an empowered, fulfilled life is self-punishment. The negative self-talk of "I'm not good enough" or "I'm not lovable" or "I can't" or "I have to"...

These painful thoughts keep us from wanting to risk failure and failure, as any successful person knows, is necessary for success.

If you are someone who runs this kind of noxious narrative through your head, you probably know how it leaves you feeling - for me - it's competent, inadequate, isolate, less than, just to name a few.

I spent most of my life thinking this kind of self-talk was "normal." It was the language spoken in my home. In my family to be mean meant you were strong, and to be kind meant you were weak. Vulnerability and sensitivity were shunned as if they were a disease. And, unfortunately for me, I was born highly "diseased."

I quickly adopted my family's punitive words and tone as a matter of survival. To feel like I belonged to my tribe. And brought it with me to school and beyond.

As an adult, I found myself gravitating towards people and relationships that mimicked what I knew. I had numerous abusive bosses whose behavior I accepted because, even though I knew it felt bad, I didn’t believe I deserved any better.

I had some traumatic events happen in my childhood that cemented this belief. I was really good at verbal warfare. I had a quick, sharp tongue. I made people laugh, unfortunately at the expense of others. I’d come about this in an honest way. I’d learned early on that the only way to stay “alive” was to be the predator not the prey.

I went to summer camp for many years and I always had a lot of friends. We did all our activities together, ate together, sat together on beds and talked deep into the night. Until I was 12.

One day that summer, I was walking home from lunch, and I saw all my friends gathered on the grass outside of our bunk. I started to walk over and sensed immediately that I should stop. I turned around and went into the bunk and sat on my bed not knowing why but feeling a heavy nausea in the pit of my stomach.

Minutes later my very best friend called me into the bathroom where all my bunk mates were gathered. My friend pointed to the toilet and told me to take a seat. I obeyed. She became the judge, and the rest of my friends became the jury. I was put on trial for social crimes.

One by one, for over an hour, I was told what I did to various jurors and asked to look at each one as I pleaded guilty or not guilty. I froze. I didn’t see this coming at all. I could’ve gotten up and rejected the cruelty out of hand. I could’ve turned the tables and put any number of my friends on trial for the exact same crimes.

I did none of that. I was scared. I was shocked. I obeyed. Because deep down I felt I deserved it.

I had said many of the mean things they accused me of. And I hadn’t said them alone. I hadn’t even instigated some of the conversations. But because I was so used to being punished, so used to accepting guilt, and so scared of being yelled at, I took it all.

There were two weeks left of camp and every day, up until the end, I did everything alone. I ate meals alone. Walked to activities alone, was the last person standing when picked for teams or partner. When washing up in the communal bathroom morning and night, I could feel the others staring at me. When I woke up in the morning, I could hear them next to me, sitting on my (ex) best friend’s bed whispering about me.

It was awful.

I felt sick every minute for two weeks.

I tried to go home but my parents thought it best for me to stick it out.

It is still awful retelling it now, almost five decades later.

You would think I’d learned my lesson about talking shit about others, but I didn’t for years to come. Old survival habits are hard to break.

And as “they” say, how we treat others is often how we treat ourselves. I didn’t need other people to punish me, I did it really well on my own.

That camp event, and others, scarred me and yet I still didn’t learn that punishing myself was optional, until, believe it or not, about ten years ago.

The survival behaviors we learn early on are so deeply integrated into our being. I identified myself and my worth by how I was treated from even before I could speak. I learned a way of being in the world, of surviving, and that became who I was.

These days I speak to myself in harsh terms much less than I used to AND I still catch myself doing it. I can see (and more importantly feel in my body) how wrong and how depleting it is to treat myself in such an abusive manner.

And it is abuse.

I’ve done a lot of work questioning old thoughts and behaviors and coming up with alternatives that are more forgiving, more kind, more true and more appreciative of who I am (flaws and all).

I stumble. I regress. The progress is in the reduced frequency with which it happens and the shorter time it takes to recognize what’s happening and get back on track.

That punisher inside me will never disappear.

She is a fierce warrior.

The good news is that another part of me, the kind, caring, and wise part of me is also a fierce warrior. And she’s really good at "killing" the punisher with kindness.


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