Craig Metz, M.S.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Most of us do things we wish we didn’t and we do them over and over again. We might eat too much or spend too much time in front of the TV or we might have explosive anger or an addiction. Maybe we can keep this behavior within certain boundaries so that it is not too disruptive to our lives or maybe we cannot. Often, we can stop for long periods of time, but eventually we do it again. If we are totally honest, we have to admit that we are not totally in control: we have decided to stop and we still do it.

The Pattern

Here is what typically happens around these types of behaviors: There is something that we do that we have decided is unhealthy and we decide not to do it anymore. Life being what it is, eventually we feel stressed and bad in some way. We want to reduce our suffering, so despite our best efforts we turn to that habitual behavior that we want to stop because it has helped us feel better in the past. That behavior gives us some relief, but because it is often a behavior that is either destructive in itself or, because we do it compulsively, it becomes destructive, we also feel stressed and bad. Because we have done something we have decided to stop, we punish ourselves by feeling bad and we think that this will keep us from doing this behavior again. So we vow never to do that behavior again. But, life being what it is, the pressure builds and we begin to feel bad and eventually we do the behavior again. People working in the addiction recovery field sometimes talk about addiction creating the conditions that create addiction.

Interrupting the Cycle

The question is: how do we get off of this cycle? With any cycle, if you disrupt any part of it you can possibly disrupt the entire cycle. The part of this cycle I want to direct our attention to is the part where we punish ourselves. We think that this will keep us from doing this unwanted behavior. In our culture, the idea that punishment will bring about a desired behavioral change is so ingrained that mostly we do not even realize that we do it to ourselves. Leaving behind the debate about whether or not punishment can ever create a desired behavioral change, in the addiction/compulsion cycle it has the exact opposite effect: The more we punish ourselves for acting in some compulsive way, the more likely we are to seek relief from that punishment in that exact same behavior.

Punishing Ourselves Does Not Work

We punish ourselves in all sorts of ways, including withholding things we enjoy from ourselves, but mostly we do it to ourselves with shame and guilt. The important point here is that it does not work! What is more, it make us miserable in the process and makes it harder for us to think clearly. We do not need to make ourselves feel bad to change our behavior. We can make changes much more easily and much more wisely without punishing ourselves.

Pay Attention

Changing a lifetime of habitually punishing ourselves, however, is sometimes easier said than done. First off, it takes paying attention. You have to notice when you are doing it if you are going to stop doing it. Old habits die slowly, so you have to keep noticing and keep coming back to it after you forget to notice (and after you forgot that you forgot to notice). Just noticing will sometimes be enough for you let go of the shame and guilt.

Compassion and Mindfulness

Often, though, even after you notice and consciously do not want to punish yourself, the shame and guilt will come up anyway. Part of yourself may not want to let go of this old belief. That is where compassion and mindfulness come in.

There is a lot that can be said about mindfulness, but in essence, it is just being aware and present to what we are actually experiencing and not reacting to it. When you do this when you notice you are punishing yourself in some way, you can create a little distance between your conscious awareness and the habit of punishing yourself. The old habit of punishing yourself may still go on doing its thing, but you do not have to “own” it. You may feel the shame and guilt, but you do not have to believe that it is necessary, helpful or deserved. It may seem like a small difference, but really it is a world of change. There is shame and guilt, but you are no longer identifying with it.

Now you can begin to feel compassion for the part of yourself that is feeling shame and guilt or suffering in some other way. You can feel compassion for the ways that you were hurt that made you think you needed to punish yourself. As you bring compassion to these neglected and suffering areas of your life, healing and change are possible. Whereas before you were locked into an unconscious cycle of an unwanted behavior, now you are healing the places of suffering that caused you to seek the unwanted behavior in the first place.

(Note: A good way to practice mindfulness is through a mindfulness based mediation practice. Mindfulness Base Stress Reduction [MBSR] classes are available through hospitals in most cities and many towns and the practice can be learned at a Vipassana Buddhist center.)