The need to be punished

Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.—Voltaire

Early psychoanalytic theorists struggled with the human behavior of self punishment. Freud developed the idea of the “death instinct” because he really struggled with the notion that anyone would do anything to harm themselves. In his mind, there must be some drive or force that compels a person to cause self harm or death. His fundamental idea was that we all are driven to pursue love and work, not self destruct. Living through WWI caused him to see things differently.

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Theorists later developed concepts like “anger directed inward”, and masochism as ways of trying to come to grips with the fact that we human beings constantly seem to be causing ourselves harm and making choices that are not in our own self interest.

What I am talking about here is behavior that is unconscious. We do the things we do without conscious awareness. I know it feels like we are in control, but our unconscious minds are really calling the shots. It wouldn’t make any sense for a person to rob a bank, being captured after a high-speed car chase, so they could get arrested and sentenced to jail just so they could feel the pleasure of being punished. However, if we think for a moment about that image, we can see that the behavior could be about something deeper; something in the unconscious mind. Suppose our bank robber grew up in a home where there was a lot of neglect. Perhaps this person never felt love the way you and I did. Maybe this person only got attention from caregivers when they were in trouble or when they were being disciplined. Maybe they started to associate relationship with punishment.

Some would argue that there could be some pleasure in that punishment. Maybe our bank robber felt some relief when they were being punished because it was the only way they were going to be connected to another human being. We would argue, perhaps, that this person was masochistic. Maybe they take some pleasure in being punished. Getting arrested then could be kind of thrilling.  What a rush to get into a high speed chase after robbing a bank and then be dragged off to jail in cuffs.

Perhaps we interpret the situation this way. The bank robber, as a kid, gets punished because they were trying to keep the angry sibling from getting into trouble. Maybe they felt that the anger or some other feeling the sibling was demonstrating, and was always getting into trouble, was dangerous and could  get someone hurt. Maybe when our bank robber started to feel angry (not overtly, but unconsciously of course) they robbed the bank thus fending off the unwanted feeling and instead feel exhilarated ensuring that they got arrested and punished so no one else would.

It is possible for us to take on punishment for reasons that are buried and quite unconscious. If we work on it, we can start to understand those feelings. We are living in a world now where people are making choices that put them in harms way. It is as if we are doing things to punish ourselves for some  unknown reason. Sufferers from trauma repeating the trauma in present relationships; abused becoming the abusers. Those who have been terrorized becoming the terrorists. The yelling and anger are about the fear of something deeper. We are not listening to it because we are yelling too loud. If we can tolerate the anger and listen, then we have a chance to find the things of which we are truly afraid and deal with them. I can assure you, it is not because of immigrants or taxes.

We commit atrocities because we believe the “absurd” superficial feelings we feel. We have to dig deeper to find the truth that is within all of us. The evil we see in the world is in us all, and the truth is in us all as well.


—Stephen M. Taylor, M. D.

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