A recent post (March 9) discussed punishment, and we noted that punishment by itself is a poor method of behavior control because it says, “Don’t do this!” Punishment by itself doesn’t provide information about what is an acceptable and appropriate action that can still, even if only partially, satisfy the motivation driving the punished action.

So, remember the punishment rule: Combine, “Don’t do this,” with, “Do this,” and remember to reward the latter action when it occurs. Whether in a childrearing context, in your adult interactions, or when dealing with self-punishment, you’ll find the combination strategy is likely to produce satisfying outcomes.

There’s one more rule to remember when using punishment: If you punish behavior that is motivated by fear or anxiety, you are likely to increase the frequency of the behavior you are punishing. How can that be? Unless the recipient (and we’re including self-punishment here!) of your punishment is a masochist, how can punishing an action that is based on anxiety produce the opposite of the intended result?

Well, think about it. When punishment works, why is that? The answer is pretty obvious: punishment associates the behavior with the expectation of pain and anxiety, and most people (excluding those with sociopathic or masochistic tendencies) work to avoid those states. But when the response being punished is based on anxiety, all bets are off.

For instance, suppose a child is in a public place with mom and, for some reason, the kid gets scared and starts crying. Mom doesn’t want her child crying in public, and she says loudly, raising her arm in a threatening way, “Stop that crying or I’m going to give you a good whack on your behind!”

Wow! The child is still scared about being in public, but now also scared of being spanked. It’s a double whammy! Put yourself in the child’s place: How hard is it to stop crying when you’re frightened? Have you ever seen a scared child trying to stop crying? It’s a pathetic scene with the child gasping for air between uncontrollable impulses to cry.

People often do things because they’re anxious and scared. If someone threatens to punish them for the actions, their fear is merely compounded. Suppose you have a tendency to stammer and get tongue-tied when you’re anxious. Your boss tells you, “Now listen, this presentation you’re giving to the Board is extremely important, so don’t blow it with a lot of ‘uhs’ and stutters. I won’t be happy.” Or, suppose those are comments you give to yourself while preparing the talk. Either way, good luck with the presentation! Whether from the boss or your  self-comments, you’re adding to your anxiety level and making it more likely that you’ll stutter.

How about if you have a tendency to eat when you’re anxious? Suppose you’re on a diet, and a couple of miserable weeks into it you look in the mirror and say, “Omigod! I’m still fat! I so incompetent I can’t even lose some weight. [Anxiety increases!] I need just a little ice cream to calm me down.” Talk about being in a vicious circle: You’re anxious so you overeat, which leads to shame and self-criticism, which makes you anxious, which makes you eat, which……you get the picture.

So, remember, punishing or threatening someone (or yourself!) who behaves inappropriately because they’re afraid is likely to be ineffective because the threat will increase the fear, which will continue to drive the punished response. The real problem here is that the focus is on the action, when the focus should really be on the fear that is motivating the action.

Remember in our earlier post when you punished a child for drawing on the wall? If the child acted out of a creative impulse, your punishment does not provide any way for the child to satisfy that impulse. Same thing when an action is motivated by fear. Punishment does not deal with the fear, only the action. If you’re looking to become more effective in your coping efforts, when considering punishment, either for yourself or for another, it pays to consider the motivation behind the behavior you are punishing.


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