How many of you self-punish to regulate your eating? Punishment starts with fear, self-judgment, and self-anger. Many disregulated eaters get stuck in this rigid, misguided approach and never move on to more enlightened, self-nurturing, self-loving ways of regulating eating. Here’s what self-punishment does: After you’ve done something you feel badly about, you use words or actions to make yourself feel worse. Double ouch! Fortunately, there is another way of changing behavior.
The dictionary definition of punish is to “inflict a penalty.” We learn to punish in two major ways: By being punished a good deal as children and by internalizing the punishing attitude our role modeling parents exhibited when they tried to change their or our behavior. When we call ourselves “bad” or other derogatory words after overeating, we engage in verbal punishment. Punishing attitudes abound in society, especially with people who do not meet certain norms: eg, with food, drugs and exercise. We punish addicts by ware-housing them in prisons rather than providing treatment. We punish fat people by discriminating against them and call folks who don’t exercise all sorts of names, erroneously thinking that it will motivate both groups to eat and weigh less.
What, then, can replace punishment as a way to change behavior? Psychology tells us that, except in extreme cases, it is more effective to praise and offer incentives to generate appropriate behavior than to inflict punishment. We need to praise ourselves lavishly, feel pride when we do something well—you know, throw ourselves a little party. We need to be kind and compassionate. The last thing we need is to hurt ourselves when we make mistakes. Compassion doesn’t mean accepting unwanted behavior, merely acknowledging imperfection and vowing to do better (see upcoming blog on Compassion versus Acceptance).
Sure, it’s necessary to put criminals in jail and give children time outs for misconduct. But let the punishment fit the crime. Overeating is neither a sin nor a crime (not yet, anyway!). Although punishment might seem like the quick fix, it doesn’t work long-term. When we punish ourselves for unwanted eating, it shames us unnecessarily; when we exhibit punishing attitudes towards others, we shame them to hurt not help.
Consider the kind of person you wish to be. It’s scary to give up punishment as a personal or societal tactic, I know, but try pushing yourselves to the next level— compassion for self and other—and see if you don’t get better results all around.