How to Conquer the Ugly Urge to Punish
I used to enjoy punishing people.
Because when I was feeling bad, I wanted the person who made me feel that way to suffer also. I always told my children that the mean kid was really just sad and wanted to make others feel sad too and, well, I guess it is the same for adults. When faced with a situation that didn’t go the way I wanted, I would feel it right in my core. All of those rotten emotions like disappointment and anger and disgust. My way to make it feel better? Punishment.
A while back, I wanted to punish someone I like very, very much. The director of my daughter’s theater program. The director did not choose my daughter for the role she really wanted in an upcoming show. When I got the news I was disappointed. “My daughter worked so hard and was so perfect for the role.” And I was angry. “I can’t believe my daughter is just going to be a dancer in the ensemble while the kid who got it gets everything because she is a favorite.” And I was disgusted. “Ugh. Why are we wasting our time with all of these late night rehearsals for this?” With all of these sour emotions rolling around in me, I wanted to punish the director and make her feel as awful as I was feeling.
The urge to punish is the reaction we have when we feel that we have been wronged. For me, I wanted to punish when I believed that my feelings have not been taken into account. When I felt like I was not important.
In my theater situation, I felt that my daughter and I were not important to the director. That she was not thinking about our feelings. I have also had moments where I am feeling unimportant to a friend I have reached out to who was too busy to respond to me. Or to my husband who left the kitchen a mess. Or to the receptionist at the doctor’s office who could not fit me in when I had a minor emergency. My reaction was always, “You are not considering my feelings”, and voila, punishment.
As the old saying goes, “the punishment fits the crime”. We punish by making the person who wronged us feel like we feel. When the crime of being made to feel unimportant happened to me, I punished my attacker by letting them know they were not important to me. I did this by withholding my love and approval. By withholding my daughter from the theater production.
Fast forward 3 hours and I did not pull my daughter from the show. At this point in my journey, I was already aware that punishment is not only unkind but unhealthy to my psyche.
You may ask why I needed to go further? If I could stop myself from acting on my desire to punish, wasn’t that good enough? Well, no. While I was able to stop myself from using that nasty tactic, it was still my gut reaction and therefore required further investigation. Because of something that can be explained by a tool called the emotional guidance scale. The emotional guidance scale orders a number of the most common emotions and the higher on the scale the emotion, like joy, the happier you are. The lower on the scale the emotion, like rage, the unhappier you are. (I have oversimplified a bit, so please investigate further!)
In my daily life, I am fairly high on the emotional guidance scale and I feel happy and peaceful and live a fulfilling, productive life. But when the urge to punish happened, I plummeted all the way down to “revenge”, which is in the lower 25%! And then, if I actually punished the person who I feel wronged me, I quickly spiraled down to the second lowest emotion of “guilt” as I regretted my actions. Then I sometimes moved to the very bottom emotion of “fear” as I begin to worry how I had affected our relationship. My emotional well-being, my friends, is the reason I was on this journey to eliminate the desire to punish.
And lucky for me (and you!) I discovered a way to release my urge to punish.
My discovery was faith.
Faith that whatever happens to me, is exactly perfect for my growth as a soul and as a human. And if what happened is exactly perfect for me, then I am not being wronged, my feelings are being taken into account, and I am important.
Remember that scenario with theater director? Well, it happened again. Obviously, I was being tested. And this time I passed.
Let me share my strategy with you.
At the moment where I feel like my feelings are not being taken into account, I stop and sit with how I feel. I don’t allow myself to think about how I have been wronged or who is to blame. It is sort of like a meditation. I focus on my breath and my emotions and the part of my body where I am feeling the pain. But when my mind starts getting involved, I dismiss it kindly and focus back on my being.
In the past, I would have camped out with my evil thoughts about my daughter not getting the role she wanted. I would have tried to explain it to myself, “She was too tall” or “They wanted a tap dancer.” I would have begun predicting the future, “This was probably her only shot.” or “She will always be pegged as just a dancer.” I would have even tried to convince myself it wasn’t so bad, “I assume there is something better waiting for her.” But I no longer indulge in the activity of thinking. I only observe my thoughts and let them go until the pain in my core has left.
When I am calmer, I remind myself that I am grateful for this lesson that is helping me to release the urge to punish. Like it or not, that is why this situation is happening. It is happening so that you can learn to release your negative behavior.
Then I get to work. Not punishing. Not worrying about why it happened. Not focusing on how to change the situation. I work on myself. I work on understanding why the situation triggered a negative emotion in me and I work to remove that trigger. I work on healing myself. I work on learning the lesson I have been given.
Now in all situations, with the theater director or anyone else, I am able to have faith that the person who I wanted to punish is actually providing me with exactly what the Universe determined I need to become the greatest, grandest version of myself. And instead of wanting to punish, I feel gratitude. Gratitude that I am being given exactly what I need.
From punishment to gratitude. All it takes is a little faith.
About the Author
Elyse Hudacsko served as guidance counselor to more than 500 young adults in her role as a Staffing and Development Manager at a Global Fortune 500 consulting firm for more than a dozen years. She then turned her focus to homeschooling her two teenage daughters in things such as determination, kindness, observation, and vulnerability. And now Elyse is sharing her expertise in guidance and education as an author, coach, and speaker.
Elyse’s love of helping others find their true path springs from her personal experience of having followed everyone else’s suggestions to an Engineering degree at Cornell University, a job as a computer programmer, a NYC penthouse apartment. And a life that did not light her up.
After years of studying and reflection she discovered her authentic self and her own unique path. And this process she wishes to share with others.