Were you corrected as a child? Or were you punished? Did you know there is a world of difference between the two?
My mother punished. No matter what the issue was, her reaction was to punish and she seldom corrected. My father, on the other hand, corrected and only rarely punished. Was it any surprise that I preferred him over her?
It can be difficult to tell one from the other sometimes…and to further complicate matters, some people mask punishing, critical behaviour as correction. If your mother says “The fork goes on the left, dear,” in a tone of voice that is merely informative, she is correcting; when she says “How many times have I told you that the fork goes on the left? What is the matter with you that you can’t seem to remember that one simple fact?” she is being punitive.
As we grow up, we internalize the things we learn from our parents. This is a normal process. We absorb their values, often their viewpoints, and frequently their beliefs and attitudes. Depending on who your parents are, what they are like, and how they view you, this can be a good thing…and it can also be devastatingly unhealthy. As children, however, we seldom have the acumen to determine what of our parents’ legacy is healthy and what is not and, all too often, we just absorb it all.
Interestingly, we may have a conscious awareness of one or both of our parents being emotionally unhealthy and consciously reject their values. “I’ll never treat my kids that way!” or “I do the opposite of what my mother did!” are things I read regularly, always said with pride and confidence that they have broken the cycle and are providing their children with a healthier legacy. But have they broken they cycle or have they just put their own spin on it? Are they providing their children with a healthier legacy or are they simply providing a differently dysfunctional life?
First of all, it you choose to do something that is the opposite of what someone else is doing and you make that choice because it is the opposite of the other person, you are not taking the independent stand you think you are. That other person is controlling you just as surely as if she browbeat you into following her lead. To make a truly independent choice you must analyse the behaviour you wish to avoid as well as the behaviour you are contemplating as a substitute and come up with an honest assessment of both, then choose the healthiest option or combination of options. If your mother maintained rigid control over your time, your activities, your comings and goings and you decide, as a mother, your children will be given complete freedom, you are being controlled by your mother just as surely as if you were duplicating her household rules. Why? Because your decision wasn’t made on the basis of what is best for your children, what each of them need individually, and the knowledge that children need limits and boundaries, it is based on you and your feelings about your mother. A decision to be like your mother or unlike her is still based on her and her behaviour, not on you and who and what you want to make of your life.
This an important thing to bear in mind because, as we internalize our parents’ values, they become a part of our own values and beliefs. Guilt comes about when we believe we have done something wrong. If we accept the values of other people rather than do the emotional and intellectual work of creating our own, then we do something that is contrary to the values of those other people, we feel guilty even if we really have done nothing wrong. Guilt is a punishment we give ourselves for doing something we have been taught to believe is wrong, even if the behaviour we feel guilty about is, objectively speaking, not wrong at all and may be, in fact, a good, healthy behaviour.
I seldom feel guilt. That may sound like a very narcissistic thing to say because narcissists are notorious for not feeling guilt, but they manage that by rationalizing or justifying their behaviour, by blaming others, by not taking responsibility for their misdeeds. I seldom feel guilt because I have spent a lot of time thinking about and sorting out the many mixed messages I got from the Ns in my life and comparing them to healthier attitudes from other sources and then choosing my beliefs. Along the way I gave up religion and embraced humanism, I gave up believing other people should behave according to my values and began to open myself to the idea that others have the same right of choice and self-determination that I embraced, even if their outcome is anathema to me.
Along the way to this, I discovered something: when not paying attention to my thoughts, I can make scathingly negative judgments of other people…something I absorbed from my mother. And most of the time these judgments are very shallow…based on a person’s looks or dress, for example. I believe it is wrong of me to engage in these judgments, and so when I catch myself doing it…
Do I punish myself with guilt? Absolutely not. Guilt is unequivocally unproductive. It doesn’t stop me from doing it again, it doesn’t teach me anything, it has no positive value in my life whatsoever. What do I do? I do not punish myself, I correct myself. I did it this morning, as I stepped into the shower. I had been reading an article about Kesha, who had recently had a lawsuit decided against her and in favour of a man who she claims raped and coerced her with respect to a recording contract. My initial reaction to this was to think something unkind, based on how she presents herself professionally (“slut chic”). But before the thought was fully formed my conscious mind stepped in with “That’s an unkind thought about someone you don’t know. You’ve decided you aren’t going to do that anymore.”
Did I feel ashamed of myself? Nope. I know where this comes from…I learned it from my mother. I also know that I am taking steps to fix it: each time I catch myself doing it, I stop myself and remind myself that this is not the person I want to be. Rather than be ashamed of my occasional relapses, I feel a sense of pride in my achievements, in my ability to stop myself from cruelly judging the character of a person by their physical appearance, and the fact that I am catching myself earlier and earlier in the “train-of-ugly-thought” each time.
The important thing to take away from this is that when I punished myself with guilt, I did not improve. I did something bad, I punished myself, it was over. Correction, by contrast, requires more than that: it requires action that leads to improvement. I catch myself doing something I believe is wrong, I stop myself. I remind myself to not do this thing, it doesn’t lead to who I want to be. If it has gone so far that I have actually hurt someone with my behaviour or words, I make a sincere apology and part of my amends is the self-correction…the on-going effort to rid myself of the behaviour. Guilt does nothing but punish and once you feel sufficiently punished, you are free to re-offend. Correction demands a change in attitude, in belief, and in behaviour.
So how do you bring an end to your guilt? It is important to realize there are two kinds of guilt: warranted and unwarranted. The second type comes from adopting the beliefs of other people and it leads to feelings of guilt even when you have done nothing wrong. You stop this kind of guilt by taking the time and making the effort to analyse your feeling of guilt and tracing it back to the source. When you find the source is a belief that someone gave you rather than a belief you have freely chosen for yourself, then you choose a new belief to substitute for the old one. If you later find yourself feeling guilty over the same issue, then you correct yourself “I no longer believe that I am a bad daughter because I do not drop everything and run when my mother calls. I know now that as an independent adult I have the right to choose when I see my mother and she has no rights over me or my time. She is the person in the wrong, not me.”
The first type of guilt, warranted, comes when you have violated you own values and ethics. Depending on what you have done, it may require an apology to another person, and making that apology, whether it is accepted or not, will help relieve your guilt. But to be free of it, you must correct yourself…especially if guilt is refusing to depart…reminding yourself that guilt is unproductive, that only by taking corrective action can you change yourself so that such an event does not occur again.
Kesha has no idea that I was thinking unkind thoughts about her this morning but I know I was and I won’t be doing it again. I know I might catch myself thinking unkind things about someone in the supermarket based on her hair or the shortness of her skirt or the tightness of her pants…but I know that today I catch myself only a few seconds into the thought and a couple of years ago I wouldn’t even realize I was doing it until I contemplated saying something to my husband and realized his response would be “Meow!”
So I am proud of my progress and look forward to the day that such thoughts are rejected by my mind before they even reach my consciousness. Correction ultimately fixes things. Punishment by guilt does not.