Punishing yourself

Ever punish yourself? Many people are constantly punishing themselves. We typically start with some kind of policy for idealized action. “I won’t check Facebook on my phone.” Then we watch themselves violate that policy. “Here I go again, checking Facebook on my phone.” Then they proceed to punish themselves. “I’m such a bad person, I can’t even control this simple thing.” Or maybe even something like “Argh! Well, according to my punishment policy, now I need to delete the app from my phone for a week.”

Does this even work? For a self-applied punishment policy to succeed, it needs to be reliable. Punishing yourself requires an ability to be aware of when you are breaking the rules. When your mind gets punished for doing something, it tends to stop. In this case, it is more directly getting punished for being aware, not for doing the “bad” thing. So it will be pretty good at learning to stop noticing your “bad” action.

Where do we get the idea to punish ourselves, after all? Seems painful. The Guru Papers presents an interesting hypothesis. Society is built on dynamics of control — people controlling each other with promises of rewards and the threat of punishment. For whatever reason, our minds may have a tendency of importing this dynamic into how it relates intrapersonally — how our mind relates to itself. When living in a world where punishment for transgression of policy is a common threat that seems to work for controlling our behavior (not without side effects, as detailed in the book and Chapman’s notes), it’s perhaps not surprising that we try to use it on ourselves.