You’ve seen it too many times. Someone tries to get away with driving badly so someone else decides to set them straight with their horn.
“I’ll teach him!” Since the Bad Driver has violated the rules, the “Good” Driver feels the need to make sure they know they can’t get away with it.
The honking is rationalized as an educational tool. But it’s actually meant as punishment.
And it’s not very effective.
The Use and Misuse of Punishment
The human tendency to punish others has served an essential social function in our evolution. Without negative deterrence, people sometimes take advantage of others. Punishment may have an altruistic element when it’s used to enhance cooperation, despite it being costly for the punisher. Even animals use punishment to maintain cooperative behavior and to ensure the wellbeing of their group. We seem to realize that without some actual emotional or physical consequence, rational explanations for following the rules don’t always have an effect.
But too often punishment as a means of deterrence is used to justify personal gratification. Revenge. Venting. Power. The never-ending and self-defeating race for moral superiority.
The consequences of punishment for people that we are closer to, such as children, partners and colleagues, are far more serious than those of the anonymous car-horn honker. And the consequences for the punishers are bad as well.
Because of their over-conscientious nature, pre-occupation with rules, and need for control, those with obsessive-compulsive personality traits are particularly liable to misusing punishment. But it may not be clear to them when they are punishing others.
Let’s look at this tendency so that we can bring consciousness to it and not let it get hijacked for destructive purposes.
What is Punishment: Direct and Passive
So what is punishment? When we punish we inflict a penalty on someone to cause pain for an offense they’ve committed. It could be with critical words, gossip, or slapping someone for a joke at their partner’s expense.
The idea is that if we inflict punishment, the offender will be less likely to commit the offense again. And it sends a message to others that they can’t get away with bad behavior—at least with us.
We can get very creative with this. Since we’re obsessed with being “good,” we sometimes resort to passive-aggressive behavior to punish others so that we don’t look so bad. Passive aggressive-behavior is not doing what the offending person wants you to do, as if they would get the message that way. But it’s really withholding for vengeance.
This can mean ignoring them, not returning calls, not giving promotions, or slowing down on the highway when the person driving behind you is riding your butt and blinking their high beams as if they’re about to miss a date with Brad Pitt.
Not surprisingly, we punish ourselves as well, with the justification that if we’re tough on ourselves, we’re less likely to commit the crime of spilling the milk, not being meticulous enough in preparing a presentation, or saying something really, really, stupid on that first date with the star of our dreams.
The fact that it isn’t effective seems to be irrelevant. Research indicates that self-compassion is more effective than self-punishment, yet we nevertheless persist with self-punishment.
And, just as with the punishment of others, we may passively punish ourselves for infractions: “You don’t get to feel happy because you ate those four cookies.”
Mixed Motivations for Punishment
If we want to stop using punishment destructively we need to become conscious of our motivations for doing it. These can be mixed.
The release of aggressive energy that hasn’t found its proper outlet, revenge, and the need for self-assurance that we’re strong or good can all lead us to cause others to suffer.
But the motivation that I want to highlight is the real felt responsibility to make things right or just, to bring order to the chaos that someone breaking the rules has caused. This is particularly true for those with obsessive-compulsive personality, for whom being over-conscientious is sometimes an unspoken religion. We feel compelled to use “education” to keep the world under control.
But there is a thin line between education and punishment.
The “punisher” feels internal pressure to bring order to the chaos by teaching the offender a lesson. It feels to them like the right thing to do. And they feel compelled to do it.
Other motives, such as revenge, may highjack this desire to restore order. Justice becomes the excuse for revenge.
Still, the more “pure” motivation should not be overlooked. And it should be questioned.
Four types of Compulsives
As I’ve described in a previous post, there are four basic types of obsessive-compulsive personality. Here’s how punishing manifests with each of them. (I’ve noted the unhealthy end of the compulsive spectrum in parentheses):
• Leader/Teacher (Bully). May punish verbally with criticism, or, at the extreme unhealthy end of the spectrum, physically.
• Worker/Doer (Workaholic). Competitively outworking others to make them look bad and to show them how it should be done. Spending hours at work may be a passive way of punishing a partner.
• Friend/Server (People-Pleaser). Passive aggressive behavior, withholding, is their main way of punishing. Too worried about disappointing others, they may say “yes,” but then do “no.”
• Thinker/Planner (Obsessing procrastinator). They can use procrastination to avoid finishing projects that others need from them. Or they may punish others by questioning how well they had thought through what they did. “What ifs” become a subtle punishment for not being precise, thorough and meticulous.
Identification with Punishing Archetypes
Sometimes these urges to act punitively are brought to you by archetypal impulses, deep instinctual patterns of behavior cultivated by nature and society for millennia, such as The Judge, The Police, The Executioner, or The Hero.
We may take on these roles as a natural expression of our authenticity. Or, we may slip into them when we enlist the energy of these archetypes to bolster a sense of ourselves as strong, virtuous and worthwhile.
For instance, we may unconsciously imagine that our purpose and identity is to keep others from getting away with anything unfair by punishing the guilty. We may feel that this is what gives us value. Imagine yourself sitting at the front of a courtroom, seated above everyone else, dressed in robes and everyone standing when you walk into the room. It’s pretty inflating.
A related version of this archetype has found expression in its own film genre: the Vigilante. Beginning with Dirty Harry, proceeding through Blood and Donuts, The Punisher, and Kick-Ass 2, all the way to The Batman, these films have tapped into a desire to take justice into our own hands and punish offenders.
Nice fantasy. But is that really our job? As my first therapist asked me, “Who made you Policeman of the world?”
And is bringing justice to the world really our motivation?
The Self-Harm in Punishing
While the harm caused to those who are punished may be obvious, the harm to the punisher may not be. At first.
With time this approach to life:
• Abandons personal responsibility and focuses on the transgressions of others.
• Wastes energy that might be better spent otherwise.
• Cultivates anger to push one over the edge of restraint in order to justify revenge.
• Infuses life with bitterness and general negativity.
• Invites ongoing retaliation from the one you’re punishing.
And Now With Consciousness
I can’t tell you when and when not to punish. But I will encourage you to become aware of your motivations for punishing so that you use it only when necessary.
Sometimes it does make sense for us to fight for justice, to inform others what they’ve done wrong, and maybe even to punish them, consciously and directly, for harm they’ve caused.
But too often our motivations are not so pure, and that role would be inappropriate for us. It would do little for society, and it would harm us as well.
Once you are aware of your potential to punish here are some steps to reign it in:
• Observe your own pattern of punishing. Do you get involved where you need not? Are you direct or passive? What are the things that push your buttons and make you want to punish?
• Ask whether it causes you and those around you suffering.
• Understand the function it has played for you. Identity? Self-worth? Power? Strength? Righteousness?
• Pause whenever you feel yourself starting to go there. Breathe. Exercise the skill of letting go.
• Put something else more meaningful in its place.
* * *
For more about passive-aggressive behavior, see this companion post: How to Know if You’re Being Passive-Aggressive.
These posts are intended as general guidance and not as specific medical advice. For more suggestions to help optimize the obsessive-compulsive personality, subscribe below.
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