Letting go of Punishment

Her white robes flowing: Kannon, the Bodhisatt...
Kano Motonobu, White-robed Kannon, Bodhisattva of Compassion, c. first half of the 16th century. (Image via Wikipedia)

Zoie posted on TouchstoneZ about how to respond compassionately to “Those Parents” (you know, the ones who state emphatically positions that are entirely opposite to your own parenting philosophy?).

I’m struck by the realization that the biggest thing keeping me from responding compassionately to those with different opinions from mine is the desire to punish them. There is a part of me that rubs her hands together and says, “I’m going to punish you with my intellect for disagreeing with me. I’m afraid I lack the skills necessary to change your mind (and frankly I’m a little scared you’ll change mine), so instead of trying that, I’ll just try to shame you into not expressing your opinion.” (I think this is where criticizing someone’s grammar comes in.)

I believe that punishment is most often counterproductive to the pursuit of the long-term goals of connection, respect and understanding. I’ve made a conscious effort not to use punishment with my children, but I still have the compulsion to do so with myself and other adults. (I still have the compulsion to do it with my kids, but I mostly fight off the urge and respond compassionately. Mostly.)

There is something very satisfying in the flame. I have to work hard to be compassionate. I have to think hard and choose my words carefully and empathize with someone whose position opposes mine. It’s a drag being so virtuous.

In addition, I pride myself on being something of a witty, intellectual being. I don’t get to showcase this intelligence very often in my line of work, and even when I do, no one over the age of five is generally around to appreciate it. Flaming someone online feels like a victimless crime and it allows me to flex my brain muscles and wordsmith a biting and insightful comment.

Yesterday, I was having an emotionally capricious, self-punishing sort of day. I ate a big hunk of chocolate cake and drank a martini instead of staying virtuously on my high-veggie, no-sugar, no-fun diet. It was rewarding in the short run, but my poor body kept me awake all night trying to process the indulgence.

Just as I paid for my chocolate cake and martini indulgence, indulging myself in a flame isn’t without consequences, either. Not only do I have the anxiety that sets in mere moments after posting a punishing comment or sending a punishing email, but I have to take into account the negative reverberations of my words, well beyond the intended recipient. If I truly believe that punishment isn’t an effective means of altering someone’s behavior, I need to put my money where my mouth is and speak compassionately, even with strangers. Even with myself.

Because in reality, the reason I feel compelled to punish other people is because this is how I feel I ought to be treated myself. Somewhere along the line I internalized the idea that if I step out of line I deserve to be punished to get me back on the straight-and-narrow. If someone else doesn’t do that for me, I do it for myself.

It is a briefly satisfying experience to flame even myself, but it burns out quickly and leaves behind only the fear and the loneliness in the darkness. I admire Zoie’s commitment to setting her ego aside and lighting a fire of compassion and connection. Unlike the punishing flame, compassion is a warming fire that causes others to want to gather about in community and share in that warmth.

I count myself privileged to be able to sit around that fire with Zoie, and Tucker and Victoria, and Dacia, and Sasha, and so many others who so often treat me better than I treat myself.

5 Replies to “Letting go of Punishment”

  1. Wow, C! You take my breath away with your eloquent candor. I often think you are so much braver than I am to put everything out there that I resonate with, too. I often think those who are very critical of themselves are capable of such huge compassion-except for themselves. I’d pretty much say your punishment is self-criticism. I happen to know what a beautiful person you are, even though I also know you might not let yourself hear me. And that’s okay. I’ll just know and you can’t stop me ;p

    I have two questions: If your kids said to themselves the things you say to yourself, how would you feel? Are you feeling like the job change, moving, health challenges, and upheaval are a deserved punishment? I’m gonna tell ya, if you can’t model compassion for yourself for yourself, then model compassion for yourself for your kids (and yes, that’s deliberately ambiguous)

    I love you. I accept and love that you want to punish. Deeply.


  2. Your blog is by far the most open and honest I have ever read. Although I am not a parent and cannot relate to how to deal compassionately with “those parents” I can totally relate to how you feel about dealing with other with differing opinions. Thank you for writing about this topic, it forces me to think about my own actions and the type of person I am. A little introspection never hurt anyone, right?


    1. Thank you so much, Dacia. There are so many things I’ve learned about myself since having kids. I’ll probably blog eventually more about how I don’t think that having kids is the only (or even the best) path to self-growth, but I do appreciate that the lessons I learn have appeal and significance beyond the “mommy” community. Introspection is great. Circumspection is often just as valuable, though. 🙂


  3. Great post, good thoughts.

    Even if it works, punishment tends to be a short lasting victory. One wouldn’t want a relationship to be based on fear or anxiety. I agree, compassion is a much better tool, one that can build respect- which is a much longer lasting foundation.


    1. Thank you, Jeff. It was a huge realization for me when I connected what I was reading about the danger of punishment with what I was experiencing with my own family (ie, punishments might get the reaction I want in the short-run, but I’ll be paying for it later). I try my best to focus on the big-picture of the relationship when I make decisions in the moment. Sometimes I hit the mark, other times I miss it pretty dramatically.


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