I had at some point early on in my life created and held a belief system around self-punishment that led to forms of self-abuse and ultimately attracting in abusive relationships.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
This awareness came to light as a long-battled eating disorder reared its’ ugly head again after lying dormant for years. With the knowledge I had gained, I was, however, better able to recognize it for what it was this time around and see clearly the destructive thoughts and behaviors I was engaging in with myself. As I examined layers of self-punishing thoughts and behaviors, I uncovered a painful truth: I had attracted, possibly even unconsciously sought out, relationships that were varying levels of abusive because it actually gave me a break from having to do that to myself. It was incredibly humbling to recognize that I could now even identify feelings of relief I’d experienced when I had someone or something in my life that could take over my need to punish myself. I came to an awareness of one of the reasons the eating disorder had resurfaced: I had no outside circumstances currently causing abuse in my life, and my need to punish myself had not been fully resolved, so I started to go back into the self-punishing behaviors that are so commonly linked to eating disorders. Jaw on the floor. Holy cow, is this really a thing?
How is this a thing? It seems crazy. Why on earth would we want to punish ourselves and engage in self-abusive behaviors? It turns out, there are a few reasons that we do. These reasons have been identified and validated through research. Dr. Juliana Breines in her article, “No Pain, No Gain: Why We Punish Ourselves,” identified three common beliefs we hold that have been validated through research explaining why we engage in self-punishing behaviors:
- I deserve to suffer.
- Suffering will make me a better person.
- I’m supposed to suffer.
When we first look at these beliefs, it is easy to dismiss them and deny that we would hold them as beliefs because they are so apparently damaging there is no way we would buy into them. Not so fast. Sit with it. It is mind-blowing how many of us hold at least one, if not all, of these beliefs somewhere inside of us. Our belief systems are created in one of three ways: (1) through our experiences; (2) we are taught them or have them projected on to us by others; or (3) they are thoughts tied to intense emotions that are repeated so many times they are automatized and become beliefs. Regardless of how we come to adopt a belief, they usually have a benefit or pay-off, at least temporarily, which is why we will continue to hold onto them even when they are not in our best interest. Each of the three identified beliefs has associated behaviors and benefits that continue to reinforce them and make them difficult to change. The only way to change them is to become aware of them, make a decision to change them, and do the work of practicing bringing in new healthier thoughts and beliefs to replace them (Brooke Castillo identifies these ways to change beliefs in the podcast, “The Life Coach School” and is a fantastic resource).
First, let’s look briefly at each of the beliefs and their associated benefits.
1. “I deserve to suffer.” As humans, we will actually work to maintain or even increase bad feelings if we have low self-esteem and/or negative self-perception (found in research conducted by Joanne Wood and colleagues). This supports what is known as self-verification theory, which basically says that we are comfortable with treatment that is familiar and consistent with our self-views. It was found that if people have negative self-views they “were less motivated to feel good because feeling good was inconsistent with their negative self-views, and because they didn’t feel they deserved to feel good” (Breines, 2010). The benefit of this belief is that having our experiences line up with our feelings about ourselves is less painful than challenging those, even when our views are distorted and damaging.
2. “Suffering will make me a better person.” This belief holds deep significance in numerous cultural and religious traditions as a way to purify or cleanse any undesirable or “bad” aspects of the self. There is the conception that if we suffer, we can receive absolution. There was a study conducted by Brock Batian and colleagues in which participants were asked to hold their hands in ice water for as long as they could while thinking either a neutral thought or while thinking of a perceived past moral transgression. Those that were thinking of the moral transgression held their hands in the ice water for longer periods of time and even reported a decrease in the feelings of guilt. When this belief is held, self-punishment can seemingly reduce feelings of guilt, but self-punishment has not been shown to create actual behavior change and can in fact take a serious toll on mental health and lead to mental illnesses such as depression and eating disorders (Breines, 2012).
So while there appears to be a benefit for this belief, it is short-lived and has serious adverse effects. In fact, research has proven that self-compassion is far more effective for behavior change. Braun, Park, and Gorin (2016) review this research and site the famous “Donut Study” that provided evidence for self-compassion being far more effective to create behavior change. They also site Neff (2003), who is a leading researcher in this field and identified the components of healthy self-compassion:
(a) Self-kindness, being kind and understanding of oneself, rather than engaging in self-judgment and criticism, (b) mindfulness, holding aversive thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them, and (c) common humanity, viewing one’s experiences as a natural extension of those experienced by all individuals rather than as isolating and separate (Braun, Park, & Gorin, 2016, p. 118).
Many worry that self-compassion will lead to self-indulgence. This has not been shown to be the case. They are different constructs, and when self-compassion contains the dimensions listed above, it allows us to give ourselves what we really need—not necessarily what we want—and does not lead to laziness nor narcissistic views of ourselves. Experiencing consequences and feelings a guilt when our behavior really is harmful and out of alignment with our highest good and purpose is helpful to create change, but punishment and prolonged feelings of guilt leading to shame do not create positive behavior change and are incredibly damaging.
3. “I’m supposed to suffer.” This belief stems from a view that we either deserve to suffer or that we are being tested to show our ability to endure it. There was a study sighted to support this belief as well. Our brains are wired to do three things: be efficient, seek pleasure, and avoid pain. When pain introduces itself in our lives, we must create a story to justify it (we are wired to do this as a way to process the pain). The stories we narrate either use pain to demonstrate our strength and support the easier handled belief that things happen for a reason, or we begin to narrate our story in a way that makes us out to be the victim, which usually has these core beliefs of deserving to suffer at the base. Breines (2012) clarified that “believing that things happen for a reason can be comforting, but at times this belief may impede efforts to reduce controllable forms of suffering.” Let that sink in for a minute. Our beliefs may actually cause us unnecessary suffering.
It became very clear to me how holding these beliefs had played out in my life. I have engaged in self-punishment in a variety of ways, the most easily identified being behaviors tied to my eating disorder. It really did feel better to punish myself for any misstep or perceived wrong-doing in my life. I found relief there. I must deserve it. Or at the very least, I was expected to endure it. WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. Yes, I’m screaming this from the top of my lungs. This is so wrong! Is it possible that holding these beliefs could actually bring to us people that abuse and punish so we can support our beliefs? Is it possible that there is another way? Is it possible that we can change and grow in the way we had hoped through self-awareness and self-compassion? Absolutely.
So this is where it begins, as it always does, with ourselves. When we can bravely look at our belief systems and how they may be either negatively or positively affecting us, we can make a different choice. We can slowly change those beliefs to healthier beliefs that will really create positive behavior change and allow more compassion, grace, and love abide. In the simple and profound words of my mother:
With frequently and a little bit,
The candle of change is lit.
Replacing any negative thoughts;
Decide, commit, then do it.
–Marilyn Beecher Thaxton
There is a better way. We can decide and begin anew. When I fully recognized and owned my part in my experiences because of my belief systems, I was able to create real change. It is one of the most powerful things I’ve experienced and is without question one of the key aspects of moving me out of victim mentality.
You do not deserve to suffer. You will not be a better person if you suffer. And you are not supposed to suffer.
Just breathe that in for a minute.
It may take time for those to resonate as truths to you as deeply as the prior beliefs, and in the meantime feel really uncomfortable. Let it be uncomfortable. That is normal when we introduce conflicting beliefs to those we currently hold—it is called cognitive dissonance. But if we decide and commit to changing these negative beliefs and are diligent in replacing those, it will eventually happen. When that happens, these new beliefs will begin to feel correct and become as much a part of us as the old beliefs. Can you just imagine what life might be like if you really believe that you do not deserve to suffer? It’s profound. It is worth every effort.
We were not created to suffer. We were created to soar.
Braun, T.D., Park, C.L., and Gorin, A. Self-compassion, body image,and disordered eating: A review of the literature. Body Image (17), pp. 117-131.
Breines, J. (2012, April 23). No Pain, No Gain: Why We Punish Ourselves. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-love-and-war/201204/no-pain-no-gain-why we-punish-ourselves
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–101. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/ 15298860309032 Neff, K. D. (2003b).