For many of us, a steady stream of emotional self-punishment can feel as natural as breathing. The process of punishing oneself can operate so subtly that people don’t detect its pernicious nature.
This is not a discussion of physical self-injury or self-harm such as skin cutting, skin burning, or hair pulling. Such self-punishment (discussed in a previous post) is the more visible expression of self-abuse. Emotional self-abuse, in contrast, is a much more widespread problem, one that, in varying degrees, plagues all humanity.
This emotional self-punishment occurs regularly among everyday people, including the brightest and most outwardly successful among us. Even the mildest neurosis produces this pattern of inner abuse. It accounts for why people so often feel wrong or bad about themselves.
Many people think it’s normal to suffer like this. Or that there’s nothing they can do about it. Not so! The problem can be overcome with psychological insight.
This problem starts with self-aggression, which is the primitive psychic energy that flows from our inner critic in the form of unkind and harsh accusations of wrongdoing, foolishness, and failure. However, this is more than simply a self-blame problem. Nor is our inner critic even the main culprit. The primary problem is our unconscious tendency to absorb this self-aggression from our inner critic and turn it into self-punishment.
This unconscious tendency, even willingness, to absorb the inner critic’s aggression is a primary psychological flaw of human nature. This flaw, a blind spot in our consciousness, is what I call inner passivity. Shrouded from our awareness, inner passivity operates like an enabler or a codependent in its accommodating and compromising interactions with the inner critic.
Inner passivity, which I write about extensively on this website, makes us secret collaborators in our emotional suffering. This passivity produces in us an unconscious receptiveness to the inner critic’s claims that we’re flawed, bad, or unworthy. The more that our inner passivity absorbs the inner critic’s attacks upon our goodness and integrity, the more self-punishment we experience. The punishments are varied, and include guilt, shame, worry, humiliation, tension, anxiety, fear, and depression.
We’re creators of our emotional suffering in the sense that, unconsciously, we’re passive recipients of the inner critic’s aggression. To put it bluntly, we are prepared to absorb, through inner passivity, the inner critic’s misrepresentations and lies about us and to accept a level of self-punishment that appeases the inner critic. When we’re receptive to punishment in this way, we’re also more willing to inflict it on others.
If we want to be more evolved (as human survival likely requires), we’re obliged to take responsibility for the unruly dynamics of our psyche. Up to now, we’ve been somewhat innocent in our collective self-defeat because the deeper source of self-damage has escaped our awareness. But our resistance to becoming more conscious and evolved is now threatening civilization itself.
Throughout this post, I give examples of the unconscious psychological defenses we employ to rationalize our acceptance of self-punishment. I’ve written extensively about the many symptoms of inner conflict, and in this article I’m trying for a fresh perspective on our psyche’s underlying dynamics.
As I said, the process of generating self-punishment begins with our inner critic. This is the primitive drive in our psyche that produces self-aggressive thoughts and feelings. On the receiving end of this aggression is inner passivity, which harbors self-doubt and defensiveness. This passive part, bombarded by self-aggression, juggles various defensive options that manage the degree of punishment we experience. The inner conflict between inner passivity and the inner critic is likely the principal tectonic plate of the psyche, where our emotional life is most unstable.
As distinctive operating systems, our inner critic and inner passivity each function with their own agendas, largely independently of our conscious mind and indifferent to our wellbeing. Our challenge is to tame these primitive elements, thereby claiming this conflicted territory in the name of higher consciousness and our authentic self.
Inner passivity, in its struggle to accommodate the formidable inner critic, is required by its weak nature to make compromises. It tries to defend us, but it does so quite ineffectively. Our best counterforce to the inner critic is our authentic self, which we discover and cultivate as, through self-knowledge, we free ourselves from inner conflict.
Inner passivity (certainly without consulting us!) makes plea deals with the inner critic. It offers up to the inner critic “a pound of flesh,” in the form of emotional self-punishment. The pound-of-flesh offering usually succeeds in getting the inner critic to ease up on its assault on our character and integrity. It’s like the bully who stops kicking his victim after inflicting “sufficient” pain.
This is key to understanding self-punishment. Psychologists have been puzzled as to why self-harming behaviors of a physical kind seem to help sufferers regulate their negative emotions. At its website, the American Psychological Association says, “If a person is feeling bad, angry, upset, anxious or depressed and lacks a better way to express it, self-injury may fill that role.” The association also notes: “Some people get pleasure from pain because they feel a weight lifted off their shoulders. This is usually what happens when people engage in self-punishment behaviors.” This emotional relief happens, as I’ve noted, because the inner critic backs off, and its abusive function is temporarily set aside, once a person has experienced “sufficient” punishment.
Guilt, shame, and mild or severe depression are common ways that painful “pounds of flesh” are offered up as appeasement to the inner critic. Guilt is the feeling that one deserves to be punished, based on an unconscious concession such as this: “Okay, inner critic, I hear you, you’re right, your attack against me is justified. I’m hearing you. I’m taking you seriously.”
Shame is the result of a more serious capitulation to self-aggression. It’s the feeling that punishment has already being inflicted and absorbed. Here’s the inner concession: “Okay, inner critic, you can see how much I’m suffering. I’ve taken on plenty of punishment. I’m so ashamed, and I’m feeling horrible. Perhaps now I’ve suffered enough.”
Often, people feel guilt and shame for minor and even imaginary infractions. The inner critic can be so intimidating that an individual’s guilt or shame is often triggered by just implications of wrongdoing in the form of passing thoughts or memories. Sometimes the offense is imaginary (a faint wish, for instance, to see harm befall someone) rather than real.
Often guilt and shame are experienced as ongoing distress and misery that far outweighs the hurt or damage involved in a person’s wrongdoing. Guilt and shame can be tied to a minor misdeed committed long ago. A misdeed can be milked over years and decades for its suffering potential. Sometimes the “crime” is not even an actual misdemeanor, as with survivor’s guilt when individuals, in irrational fault-finding, conjure up false conjectures of personal responsibility, along with guilt and shame, for harm they’ve supposedly done to others.
Depression and suicidal thoughts are also “pounds of flesh.” When self-punishment accumulates in one’s psyche, the effect over time is to become dispirited and depressed. A psychological defense arises that tries to deny one’s unconscious willingness to experience this sort of self-punishment: “I don’t want to feel beaten down by my inner critic. I’m not indulging in this self-abuse. Look at how depressed I am. I’m not being receptive to this abuse! I hate it! My depression proves I hate it!”
Suicidal thoughts sometimes arise out of this conflict. These thoughts provide the individual with an unconscious psychological defense: “I’m not willing to passively absorb belittling allegations and accusations from my inner critic. I’m not emotionally attached to this abuse. I want it to end! I’m even thinking about ending it all by terminating my life.”
Individuals absorb self-punishment from the inner critic because they fail, through inner passivity, to protect themselves from the largely irrational insinuations that build the case for punishment. Even self-forgiveness for a supposed crime committed long ago fails as an antidote when a person is willing, through inner passivity, to absorb allegations of wrongdoing and turn it into self-punishment. Many people go on endlessly, day after day, forgiving themselves to no avail for some infraction from their distant past.
As an aspect of one’s unconscious willingness to absorb such punishment, a vague sense can arise that we somehow deserve to be punished. Rationalizations for absorbing the punishment also include, “I’m supposed to suffer” and “Suffering will make me a better person.”
Procrastination, a common symptom of inner conflict, can be understood as a “crime” that justifies self-punishment. Typically, procrastination produces a painful sense of self-disapproval. The inner critic berates the individual for his passive dawdling, and this person soaks up the abuse, producing guilt or shame. Why does the person procrastinate in the first place? Unconsciously, he’s using procrastination as the means to replay his unresolved inner conflict and to experience the inner denunciations that, through inner passivity, he allows to continue to haunt his inner life. (This dynamic also applies to the common self-defeating behavior of chronic indecision.)
The axiom that we’re all largely responsible for how we experience life makes perfect sense when we uncover this unconscious willingness to experience self-punishment. A good example is the common willingness of multitudes of people to live with a sense of oppression, a neurotic symptom described in detail here.
Other evidence shows the extent of this underhanded self-abuse. Our most vivid memories are often ones that produce bad feelings about ourselves. Our most intrusive thoughts often cast us in a bad light. Daily we find fault with personal “flaws” of character or intelligence that we believe have undermined our dreams and expectations. We stew in feelings of being disrespected and devalued, as we soak up painful intimations that such insinuations have validity. Anger, hate, bitterness, and cynicism poison our experiences and inflict unnecessary suffering and self-punishment upon us. We’re tempted to want to punish others, to see harm befall them, even as surreptitiously we produce within ourselves a bittersweet facsimile of what that punishment would feel like.
Often parents who as children were rigorously punished can feel a compulsion to be critical and scolding toward their children. In doing this to their children, they’re unwittingly using their children as a way to identify emotionally with the feeling of being punished. It’s déjà vu all over again, at the kids’ expense.
Parents sometimes associate being strong and firm with their children as somehow administering inappropriate authority and thereby being punishing. The misleading impression is that the exercise of one’s authority, even when well-intentioned, is somehow unkind, insensitive, and punishing toward others. Parents (and people in general) often punish themselves with self-doubt over their right to be assertive.
Different personality types have their own formulas for producing self-punishment and covering their tracks. Consider perfectionists. They avoid awareness of their emotional attachment to self-abuse by claiming in their unconscious defense: “I’m not looking to feel punished by my inner critic. I’m not interested in feeling criticized! Look at how perfectly I try to do everything. That proves I don’t want to absorb self-criticism.”
Our underlying willingness to absorb punishment is obviously self-defeating. With perfectionists, they not only experience the punishment of self-criticism but also the stress and anxiety of striving to maintain the impossible goal of perfectionism.
Another example of a self-punishing personality is the needy person who claims unconsciously: “I don’t want to feel rejected, betrayed, and belittled. I’m not looking to punish myself for believing in my unworthiness. I want to feel connected. Look at how eager I am to find recognition and support from others.” The needy person, though, acts out his underlying emotional attachment: Others reject and abandon him out of their growing disrespect for him.
Our affinity for self-punishment reveals an unconscious masochistic streak in human nature. Hidden away in our unconscious mind, the specter of masochism is a primary ingredient in inner passivity and a chief instigator of humanity’s anguish and destructiveness.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.