Last night, I heard someone, emphatically, declare, “don’t make promises you can’t keep.” My punitive alert monitor soared to harsh. I thought, so this person has never EVER broken a promise? He’s infallible? What happens when he or others make mistakes? No mercy. He’s Punitive Peter. Punitive Patty for the females. People who regularly respond punitively when people mess up, fall short, or don’t measure up, lack empathy and compassion for themselves and others. They punish instead of being compassionate and patient. It takes on different forms: angry or cold stares, avoiding eye contact, harsh criticism, judging, being unforgiving.
The Vicious Cycle
The person experiencing the scorn feels worse and the punitive person feels better in a negatively perverse way. I was one of those people and at weak moments, still am. I had a cruel father that didn’t allow mistakes like spilled milk, laughing at the dinner table and challenging an order. We walked on eggshells and internalized a stringent, unattainable perfectionism encased in punitive pie crust. This bred lots of anxiety, fear of failure and being abandoned. In therapy, I have learned that I was cruel to myself and others when mistakes were made. I was not allowed to be, and hated being, human.
Not everyone had this kind of home life but in my experience as a coach, teacher, and visual artist, almost everyone I work with, young and mature, is hard on themselves and others. More and more, I teach people to be patient, kind and forgiving with themselves especially when learning something new and working with others. Impossible standards of perfectionism are created and when they are not met, the punishment, brutally verbal, begins. We get locked in a punitive cycle of perfectionism and punishment. That we’re hard on ourselves and others is not new but it seems more awareness has been created in this time of social media scrutiny and comparison.
Change begins with you. Examine your relationship with yourself. How do you treat yourself when you make a mistake? How you behave toward yourself is mirrored in your exchanges with others. Are you impatient? Do you call yourself names? I used to curse myself out for not finding my keys! Do you judge yourself harshly? Are you “supposed” to look and feel a certain way? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you’re punitive. You’re making life more anxious for you, loved ones and people you work with. You’re making yourself sick. Take a deep breath… and stop. Be kind to yourself. You will make mistakes because that’s what humans do. The world doesn’t hang, or end on, what you do. Let me know how things go.