I punish myself


I punish myself


your avatar   Nate, 16-year-old man

I'm just a 16-year-old kid. I'm trying to live up to my parent's expectations, and I am not doing well. I am in three advanced placement classes in high school and have a 4.0 GPA, but my parents just take it all for granted now.

I started dating this girl a couple weeks ago. It's still not serious, and that is cool with me. Last night, she, my best friend, and I went to a movie. Halfway through the movie, I asked her if she'd like to hold hands. She said, "Nah, that's all right." So, I acted like it didn't happen, because we had other plans that night, and I didn't want to act like a sad jerk for the rest of it, so I was cheerful until I took her home. But it was on my mind, and made me really absent-minded. I forgot to walk her to her door. I felt like a dork. I parked in an empty parking lot, listened to some music, and then punched myself as hard as I could in the face because I felt like I deserved it. Then I did it again. I went back home, got a metal clip, pushed it against the soft hairless part of my forearm... and yanked it forward. The first time I scratched myself bad enough to draw blood.

Later that night, I felt miserable because I'd taken something as small as a rejection to hold hands so seriously. I thought I was an idiot for hurting myself over something like that. So, what do I do because I'm an idiot? I hurt myself again. My left arm is all messed up. Nobody knows. It's ironic: I punish myself for punishing myself. Sounds like an endless spiral. So, what is wrong with me? Why do I feel like I need to punish myself for things?


    Bob Rich, Ph.D.

Dear Nate,

I am going to start by disagreeing with you. You are NOT 'just a 16 year-old kid'. You are that wonderful, unique, incredible thing, a HUMAN BEING. There is no other like you, and never will be, and I have detected several very good qualities even in your short call for help. For example, you are a considerate, kind, caring person, a real gentleman. You are intelligent and do well at school, and care enough for your parents to work hard in order to please them. I am sure they don't take this for granted, though it may often feel like it to you.

Your particular disease is being young, and let me tell you, you'll grow out of it, all too soon. There is nothing else wrong with you -- at the moment. However, your self-injuring behavior is a DANGER SIGN. There is no question: you are at the start of a potentially terrible problem, if you let it get out of hand.

Fortunately, you are sensible enough to fight this problem, and do not want to give in to it.

Let me tell you something about being a teenager. EVERY teenager is in the middle of a television soap opera. This show has one star. The other characters are hardly even bit players -- they are roles, and almost any person of the right sex and age can be plugged into one of these roles.

You are remarkably mature for your age, for you have noticed this about your friend Keith. To him, you are a person who happens to fill the role of friend. If tomorrow he moved to California, he'd quickly find someone else to fill the hole you are filling, and so would you.

As for the girl, she is so replaceable to you that you didn't even mention her name. ANY attractive female of the right age would have done for going out with.

You were playing a game: learning to be a boyfriend. This girl was playing a different game, a very important one for young women. She was learning the power of saying 'no'. It is ESSENTIAL for girls (and guys too) to learn this skill. She needs to be able to say 'no' to pressures to have inappropriate sex, to take drugs, to steal, and even to do favors for others to the point where she is sacrificing her own happiness for those of other people.

I am sure she likes you. Why on earth else would she have gone out with you? If you had reached over and gently but firmly took her hand, she may have let you, or she may have equally gently but firmly pulled away. She would have not been offended by this, but rather flattered and even thrilled. It would have said to her, 'He thinks I am attractive'.

But instead of doing, you asked. At her age, given the lessons she is practicing, this gave her power, the power to say 'no'.

She didn't say 'no' because she dislikes you, or in order to hurt you, or reject you, or for any reason other than practicing her personal power to be able to say 'no'. You were not even a bit player in her play, just a role, someone to say 'no' to -- the issue of what was being denied didn't even matter. She was learning her own power. And good for her, she needs this lesson.

Now we come to your reaction, and this is an entirely separate issue. Suppose that you asked a girl out, and she screamed, "You've got to be kidding? Go out with you? HAHAHAHAHA!"

Now THAT's a rejection.

What would this say about you? NOTHING. What would it say about her? LOTS, all bad. You don't want such a bitch around you anyway, do you?

But you react to an action you see as a rejection by feeling TERRIBLE about yourself. And when you feel bad, at some level within yourself you feel you must have done something to deserve it. It must be your fault. Therefore, you must punish yourself. And again, you are very wise for your age: you have picked up the spiral: now you need to punish yourself for having been 'stupid enough' to punish yourself.

Nate, You are a human being. All humans are imperfect, we all need to learn. What you learned is that when you have made a blunder, and you punish yourself for it, you will feel WORSE rather than better.

So, that doesn't work. Don't do it again. Try something else. Tell yourself: IT WASN'T A MISTAKE BUT A LEARNING EXPERIENCE. Then think, 'Next time I want to touch a girl, (or anything else you'd like to learn) how will I go about it?' Try it out, and think the results through.

Punishment is NOT the right response to a mistake. You do not have to be perfect, even in your own eyes. You are OK, faults and all.

Please get back to me and let me know if I have been helpful to you.

Good luck,

Bob Rich

This question was answered by Dr. Bob Rich. Dr. Rich has 30+ years of experience as a psychotherapist. Dr. Rich is also a writer and a "mudsmith". Bob is now retired from psychological practice, but still works with people as a counselor.For more information visit: http://anxietyanddepression-help.com


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