Self-Compassion and Self-Understanding

A friend writes:

Do you have any theory as to why I am so prone to self-punishment? Like the other day I accidentally slept later than I wanted to and I beat myself up and had zero sympathy for myself. I am emotionally punitive with myself with lots of rules about when work will happen and how it will happen.

The following was my reply:

I can't tell you exactly what's happening in your case but I can give you a few ideas or tools that will help you figure it out on your own.

The key idea: "everything happens for a reason". In this case, every "mistake" and every punishment that follows all happen for reasons, which are always something that you want, either in a positive sense or a negative (avoidant) one.

The trick though is that often these reasons are obscured: we lie to ourselves and put on pretexts. For example, you might tell yourself that having no sympathy for yourself is good because it's a form of discipline, but it actually may be for a different reason, which is guided by outcomes: you get the opportunity to punish yourself by having zero sympathy, and through that self-punishment, you get something you want.

So the approach to take needs to be scientific to an extent: see patterns and what happens next, objectively speaking, and consider whether it may actually be something you want even while consciously denying it.

This is something I struggle with in dating. I say to myself "I want to date" and then I engage in counterproductive behaviors and interactions.

Why? It supports my self-image, which I enjoy out of comfort ("I am just like this, I can't change") and gives me ammo to complain, which I enjoy. Of course I don't consciously think this during the acts, but if I look objectively at my own cognition and the results of my behaviors, this seems true.

Once you've recognized the conflict in some depth, you can work explicitly to change it, through various means, internal (changing your beliefs by accepting consciously the suppressed reasons and acting them out directly instead of circuitously) or external (changing your behaviors to better align).

In my experience, strict punishment usually comes from a belief like "weakness/losers don't deserve sympathy", often internalized from caregivers and sustained out of convenience or comfort. The struggle is developing compassion through understanding why you did the thing deserving of punishment, and recognizing it as a piece of yourself that's just as real as the piece doing the punishing.

I think that this process overall is how people grow toward wholeness and self-understanding, and I'm still working on it myself.


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