This Positive Psychology Theory Will Help You Learn From Your Mistakes: ‘Punishment Doesn't Work'

Shanti | Twenty20

If you're a perfectionist, that might mean you can be pretty hard on yourself. A mistake at work, for example, could result is some pretty negative self-talk or actions, like depriving yourself of a snack later that day.

In other words, you're punishing yourself.

But self-punishment doesn't encourage growth, says Katherine Morgan Schafler, a psychotherapist and author of "The Perfectionist's Guide to Losing Control." 

"Punishment doesn't work," she writes in her book. "When you punish someone, that person doesn't learn how to change; they learn how to avoid the source of the punishment." 

If you are the source of your own punishment then you learn to avoid yourself. This might look like overworking, overspending, or numbing yourself with excessive consumption of social media or TV shows.

None of this actually helps you grow, though. 

Punishment can be mistaken for a handful of things: discipline, personal accountability, natural consequence, and rehabilitation. 

  • Punishment vs. Discipline: "Punishment seeks to increase pain. Discipline seeks to increase structure," Schafler writes in her book. Punishment is about control and discouraging negative behavior. Discipline is about promoting structure to increase positive behavior. 
  • Punishment vs. personal accountability: Personal accountability is about owning up to your mistake and taking responsibility for the solution. Personal responsibility requires you to apologize to who you've hurt and make a pledge to improve. Punishment doesn't really come with a plan other than blaming yourself. "Punishment is lazy," she writes. 
  • Punishment vs. natural consequence: Punishment relies on fear to help you learn, but natural consequence relies on understanding that your choices had impact, perhaps one you didn't like. Instead of being scared to act, natural consequence might encourage you to act in a way that will net a positive result. 
  • Punishment vs. rehabilitation: Punishment seeks to "demoralize and disempower" while rehabilitation seeks to "stabilize and empower," Schafler writes. Rehabilitation focuses on building positive growth on a healthy foundation. 

The broaden-and-build theory

Instead of punishing yourself for making a mistake, Schafler writes it is more effective to practice self-compassion. In her book she references the broaden-and-build theory, a positive psychology theory that was developed by social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson in 1998. 

Broaden-and-build theory suggests that when you're in a positive headspace you feel more able to face different challenges and make choices based on the possibility of positive outcomes. 

When you're in a negative headspace your view narrows and you aren't inspired or encouraged to think differently. 

In order to put yourself in a positive headspace, you need to practice self-compassion, Schafler says. 

"Research demonstrates self compassion's positive association with a greater sense of self-worth, increased personal initiative, increased resilience to stress, more realistic self-appraisals of strengths and weaknesses, lower levels of depression and anxiety, reduced rates of burnout, increased motivation to make amends for past mistakes, and the list goes on," Schafler says. 

Opting for self-compassion instead of self-punishment means you are more likely to learn from your mistakes and grow as a person. 

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