Recovering from Self-Punishing Tendencies and Seeing Them for What They Really Are

“If you don’t get out of bed and turn the fan on before you fall asleep, you will never amount to anything in your life because you don’t have willpower,” were the words I used to motivate myself one night in middle school.


I got out of bed, turned off the light and went to sleep with the satisfaction of knowing that I had the willpower and “mental toughness” for even the little things in my life. Later that summer, I did 2,400 crunches and nearly wound up in the emergency room after damaging an abdominal wall.


What led me to do thousands of crunches? I had eaten two Cheetos after dinner that night.


 Self-punishing is a habit that conceals what’s going on underneath the surface. In reality, I struggled with self-worth and it manifested as anxiety, prompting me to cling to anything external that showed that I mattered. Doing over two thousand crunches demonstrated my ability to push harder than others; in effect, it showed that I was good enough. This habit snowballed into one of the hardest battles I’ve ever fought, laying the foundation for an eating disorder.


Self-punishing serves as a guise for an issue that many of us face: lack of self-worth. Did I really want to work out until couldn’t stand? No. Did the years of emotional neglect create a wound that I had no idea how to heal? Yes.


The idea that we need to earn everything in life, rather than live from an aligned place, serving in our own unique ways, can lead to severely detrimental thought patterns and even mental illnesses like eating disorders. When we are constantly striving for more validation, a title or another box to check on our list of external appropriations, our soul can never reach the destiny it came here to fulfill.


Between societal standards, the way we were raised and the beliefs adults enforced during our formative years, our senses of self can become deeply entangled with the opinions and projections of others. If you grew up in a home where you needed to prove yourself constantly, it can manifest in your life in detrimental ways. Instead of valuing the person you are, the ideas you have and the one-of-a-kind journey you are meant to take, these patterns create a world centered around how it looks to others.


By age 25, our thought patterns have become deeply embedded in our brains. The neuropathways we have used for nearly three decades have burrowed deep enough to allow thoughts to flow from one area of the brain to another with little resistance. That means that the coping mechanisms you created in childhood now have settled on a physical level. You can still make changes, of course, but your patterns will bring you to the same place over and over again unless you consciously choose to think differently. 


Perfectionism, overworking and self-criticizing all stem from deep wounds likely created in childhood or adolescence. Any time we think we are at our worst then leap to criticize, “fix” and analyze, those wounds hop into the driver’s seat. Our thoughts of self-punishment surge through our deeply-entrenched neuropathways to satisfy a need created decades before. The catalyst can be situations like trauma or neglect, or more subtle things like limiting beliefs passed down, having parents who used guilt and shame as punishment or generational distress. Whatever the case, these can shape the rest of our lives if we let them


This isn’t a case for "cry it out and get over it". Noticing the patterns that wounded us, seeing them objectively as part of the soul contract we signed and deciding we no longer want to live in that paradigm paves the way towards the life we were meant to live. It doesn’t mean that the hurt is gone and that you don’t think about it. It means that you step outside and identify the thought patterns you no longer want to carry with you. In my case, the idea that I needed to work myself into the ground to amount to anything was the first I wanted to leave behind. 


Self-punishing creates a shaky bridge between who we are and who we are pretending to be. In reality, I love relaxing. I love doing yoga, taking long walks and writing. Pushing myself to unhealthy limits completely opposes my true nature. But, my conditioning and experience created an almost unshakable belief that this nature wasn’t good enough. In my family, people who took it easy were “leakers”. I would never, ever allow that to happen. In an effort to mold myself into the ideal human so lauded in my external world and skirt the pleas of my soul, I tried to silence them with rigorous activity. From throwing myself into schoolwork, exercise or even turning off a light, I always looked for ways to ignore and conceal my true self.


Once I slowly peeled back the layers and began questioning everything that I had learned, my thoughts began to shift. What if I didn’t have to worry all the time? What if being thin didn’t really matter that much? What if I could just exist and things would be okay? What if all of these things were just thoughts?


Coming to these realizations took years with journaling, meditating and yoga helping me heal. I started to differentiate between what I actually liked to do and what everyone else liked to do. Even more, I stopped caring that my world looked different than everyone else’s. Once you have a taste of this type of freedom, it becomes the healthiest addiction you can have.


I came face to face with the part of me that has been whole since the beginning and always will be: my soul. Getting back to your essence takes time and an effort to understand which parts of you are real and the parts that you picked up as you went through life. I wasn’t a self-punisher; my conditioning and willingness to comply with the beliefs of others had created one.


Self-harm is antithetical to the truth of who we are. Habits like addiction, self-loathing and self-punishing come as a result of a turn away from the soul. Often, a soul’s journey involves hardship early in life with conditioning and societal pressure creating false perceptions in the psyche. The journey towards our highest self involves dismantling these ideas and manufactured limits created by the human mind.


When we are too entrenched in the human world, we can see fear at nearly every turn. Used as a false defense mechanism, fear births the limiting beliefs passed down through decades and even centuries. Removing yourself from the cycle is how we heal, not only ourselves, but all of the generations to come. Choosing love over fear, trusting the natural cycles and rhythms of your life while detaching from perceived limitations manufactured by the ego, signals your return to your true nature.


Being yourself means so much more than dressing a certain way, it means letting go of the wounds, limitations and ideas so many believe to be absolute. When you choose to move from the light within rather than the illusions this world creates, you can release any need for destructive behavior. You begin to see these coping mechanisms as ways to cling to external validation and watch as they dissolve, because you see them for what they really are: an illusion.  


“Self-punisher” was never a label I willingly wore. Even ten years ago, I knew that wasn’t me. No matter what it looks like outside, the truth of your being lies within. Finding that, coming back to what’s real, is half the fun.