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To Change or to Punish: That is the Question

“Do we fight to change things or do we fight to punish?”

This question is posed by the Gandhi character in the award-winning film of the same name. Although no record exists of the real Gandhi uttering these words, the sentiment is one he surely would have endorsed. It was his life’s work not to punish others, but rather to change their hearts, minds, and, ultimately, their actions.

The same question also must be asked when beginning to work on any therapeutic target, because if the goal is to change then the inclination to punish may interfere. Perhaps that sounds strange, because punishment is often considered a good way to force change. Put simply, if you want someone to stop doing something, common sense might say to punish them until they stop.

But there are two reasons why this logic fails when it comes to therapeutic change. First, if you are trying to change something about yourself, whether it’s the way you think, feel, or act, chances are you have tried everything you can think of and it isn’t working. That’s usually because there are underlying, sometimes even unconscious, barriers that get in the way of change. If you could choose to do things differently you would, you really would, but for some reason you just can’t. As a result, it simply isn’t fair to beat up on yourself. You don’t need more motivation to change; you just need a roadmap for making it happen.

The second reason is that sometimes the very target of therapeutic work is the tendency to punish oneself. For those who contend with feelings of low self-worth and overly self-critical patterns of thought, the instinct to punish oneself into changing is uniquely self-defeating. Not only will it fail to help bring about change, but it may also cause feelings of low self-worth to spiral even further.

If the goal is to change and not to punish, it’s usually more helpful to approach therapeutic goals from a place of curiosity. Instead of beating up on yourself for being stuck and bullying yourself to change, it’s often better to understand why you’re stuck and come up with an achievable plan to move forward in a new direction. Changing old patterns is never easy, but it’s worth fighting for. And if change is the goal, then fight to change, not to punish.

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