Until Morale Improves

I get to work with some incredible men, which is a very cool thing.

I get to work with some incredible men who’ve elevated beating themselves up to levels almost as incredible as they are.

While it’s still astoundingly cool that I get to work with them, I’m also keenly aware, as the clever quip goes, that “there ain’t no winner in a fight with yourself.”

I’d love to tell you that I’m a stranger to the concept and practice of self-punishment.

I’d also like to tell you I’m the humble winner of several Nobel Prizes…

But of course, I’d be lying through my teeth.

The nasty problem with beating one’s self up is that it can appear such a rational, corrective sort of thing to do.

Where it starts to get thorny and weird is the moment the inner voices begin to shift away from useful behavioral corrections toward harsh critical judgements that quickly escalate to full-on attacks.

What begins as an innocent “Oh, silly me” rapidly devolves into something like, “You worthless idiot, how could you? You’re so #@!~ing stupid!”

Or worse.

Because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, there’s a next level that comes along with the early stages of developing self-awareness. It happens when one first starts to notice their own thoughts, potentially creating layer upon layer of self-punishment.

I judge myself for something and start to beat myself up. Then I notice that I’m beating myself up, so I judge myself a second time for beating myself up and proceed to punish myself for that…

In this case, I’m now beating myself up for beating myself up! Only this time, I’m “enlightened.”

Any of this sound familiar?

What makes the pattern so insidiously sticky is that it’s often viewed as a distorted form of self-motivation: “I must treat myself harshly to be effective.” Or focused. Or productive. Or an example. Or…

When I see clients piling on the self-punishment, I often ask if they would ever speak to a direct-report, friend or their own child the way they speak to themselves.

In my two decades of doing this work, not a single one has ever said “yes.”

In fact, they’re usually soberingly horrified at the thought.

So what is it that makes this sort of punitive self-talk so tempting?

What has people reach for self-abuse when they’re looking for a change in direction and/or seeking motivation?

We could point to everything from a culture that prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation to Hollywood representations that elevate personal martyrdom to mythical status.

Then, of course, there are more than enough examples of critical parental voices, belittling teachers and athletic coaches who have transmitted messages that one must perform to earn admiration. In the mind of the Inner Child or Adolescent, that message can easily be interpreted as “this punishment (and the shame that goes with it) is necessary I’m ever going to become worthy of love.”

And so the beatings continue, spurned on by the illusory promise that someday morale just might improve.

It’s a someday that, caught in an insidious, shameful feedback loop, never comes.

Like so many other points of self-development, the place to start is always with awareness. Wildly neutral, curious and objective awareness that enables one to report facts: “I am beating myself up right now.”

The next step is to notice the impact of that self-punishment. It might be kicking up anxiety and adrenaline – but is that the experience you’re really aiming for?

If you’re looking for something different, I’d point you toward Rumi’s Three Gates of Speech: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

I can’t speak for you, but I’ve yet to have a single example of my own self-punishing inner voice’s words make it through the first gate, much less the second two…

Love, thank goodness, is funny that way.