The difference between discipline and punishment


In the latest episode of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast, 120. Helping Children Regulate Their Emotions, there is a very interesting discussion starting at 35:50 about the difference between discipline and punishment. As you can guess from the podcast title, the discussion is specifically about parenting children.

According to the guest psychologist, Dr Ann-Louise Lockhart, punishment is about making the parent feel better by discharging their anger and annoyance at the child. The child feels the parent’s negative emotions and that makes them not want to repeat the behaviour. Discipline, on the other hand, is about teaching the child something specific that the child can apply to their own life later and so not repeat the behaviour again.

My experience as a child was of being punished not disciplined, using these definitions. I think that was pretty typical of the time I was a child. I wasn’t punished often because I was, mostly, a ‘good girl’. I am pretty severely mentally ill and don’t cope well with it but I don’t know if there is any link with those childhood experiences and my present mental state. Don’t know, not really interested as nothing I can do about it now.

What does strike me now is that even as a child and teenager, while I wasn’t being punished often by my parents, I was definitely punishing myself a lot. A fuck of a lot. For all kinds of minor things that I blew out of proportion and thought were horrendous. For example, I have three thick hypertrophic scars over my sternum between my breasts from not being able to answer a question in my maths Higher prelim. I was so intensely frustrated sitting there not being able to answer the question that I was overwhelmed and the only way I could keep myself intact, keep my composure and pretend I was normal, was to promise myself that that night before bed I would punish myself by cutting as deep as I could over that bone. I visualised the cutting and imaged the pain and felt so much better. I felt calm and clear headed. And so I finished my exam. Can’t even remember if I ever did attempt an answer for that question. Can’t remember my result for that prelim. But I know that I kept my promise that evening and cut as deep as I could over that bone.

I have kept punishing myself out of my teens and throughout my adulthood. I’ve never really questioned it. It’s self-evidently necessary that I need to be punished and obviously I need to take responsibility and do so to at least attempt to try to make myself a better person. I weaponise my rage and frustration and aim it at myself. Then I listened to this podcast and thought about this psychologist’s definitions of punishment and discipline. I am telling myself that I am discipling myself and shaping myself into a better person. But I’m not; this is about beating myself down to make myself feel better. Does that sentence even make sense outside of my head? Lots of things die when they come out of my head into the world. That’s usually a good thing. Try again: I punish myself to make myself feel better; so I can tell myself I am doing a good thing. I know that’s true because I can remember feeling satisfied if I’d really managed to hurt myself. I felt safer, I think. I feel like I’m doing right, like the world is going right.

I have reduced hugely the amount I am punishing myself with food and restriction. Haven’t self-harmed in a very long time. Don’t drink. Don’t take drugs. Cut down the over-exercise a lot. Still isolate myself and don’t get enough social contact. Still sabotage important things in my life. Still fuck with my prescription medication (it’s going really well as I’m sure you can tell from my recent posts). Over the years my need to punish myself has morphed and adapted. I’ve tried so many things. I am so very tired. I am tired of punishing myself and getting worse. I’m tired of hating myself and just seeing that I am an endless pit of hate. I’m not a better person for it. I am just… less. Broken down.

Pale skinned feet standing on dark sand with chains round the ankles (Pixcove)

I could try to disarm the punishment but I don’t feel very hopeful that I could make much difference. But then I took up running which is just the most laughable thing for me to think I could ever do. Made an attempt at intuitive eating though don’t know how well it’s going (obviously the scales are the only arbiter of progress). Started mindfulness and found my own way to help the depersonalisation. <off to google “how to stop self-punishment”>

Oh, I’m sorry. Were you expecting an inspirational concluding paragraph. Wrong blog.

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