Punitiveness: Moral Conviction or Self-Infliction?

by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LCPC

I recently ran across an article from Psychology Today that was about the personality trait “authoratarianism”, which originated in the 1950’s from a book titled The Authoritarian Personality. The article was about how individuals with a high level of this personality trait can experience sudden and intense anger reactions, specifically brought about by other people not conforming to what are deemed conventional moral or spiritual values. These individuals also tend to have a remarkably high submission to authority or leaders, an almost unwaivering commitment to the “rules” as they see them.

What is Punitiveness?

Interestingly, this idea of authoratarianism is also right in line with the schema of Punitiveness, as described by Jeffery Young and colleagues in their writings on common schemas held by individuals who seek Mental Health Counseling. Schemas are thought to be enduring and pervasive thought patterns and beliefs that typically originate early in life and persist throughout one’s life. Schemas are thought to arise out of frustrated and unmet needs during early childhood. The schema of punitiveness, like authoratarianism, has to do with obedience to rules, not making mistakes, and strict adherence to meeting the expectations of

“The schema of punitiveness, like authoratarianism, has to do with obedience to rules, not making mistakes, and strict adherence to meeting the expectations of people in authority.”

people in authority. Individuals who score high in punitiveness often identify with statements such as: “I find it hard to forgive others,” “I often experience harsh internal voices and beat myself up for making mistakes”, “I feel strongly that others need to be told when they are wrong and punished accordingly”.

How does Punitiveness Effect You?

Because of these persistent beliefs and internal experiences, individuals scoring high in the schema of punitiveness may not only struggle with their own self-image and self-doubt, but often bring these types of attitudes and expectations into their relationships. Because this has been the normal internal experience of the individual for so long, they are often unaware that others don’t necessarily operate under the same belief system or experience the same feelings. This can cause persistent and repeated relationship distress, as others often experience them as harsh, judgmental, critical, and un-sympathetic, even when the individual is completely unaware that they are coming off that way.

Recent research, attempting to find connections between particular schemas and other variables, such as particular coping mechanisms, substance use, and relationship patterns, are currently under way. Early studies have demonstrated correlation between high scores in punitiveness to things like alcohol and opiate abuse and avoidant relationship styles. Research like this will undoubtedly be helpful for future counselors and therapists in identifying the aspects of a client’s personality that may be impacting their ability to overcome particular addictions or relational problems. Identifying the schema behind the Mental Health problem may prove to make all the difference when it comes to discovering effective treatment for individuals with schemas.

“Identifying the schema behind the Mental Health problem may prove to make all the difference when it comes to discovering effective treatments for individuals with schemas.”

What to do if You Relate to Punitiveness?

If you relate to some of the statements that represent the punitiveness schema, perhaps this is something worth considering more in-depth. The main goal of Schema Therapy is really to identify and own our schemas. As long as schemas are unconscious, we are trapped in patterns that drive us toward unhealthy behaviors and coping mechanisms. Problematic schemas are frequently associated with common Mental Health concerns such as anxiety and depression. Once you identify and name your problematic schemas, consider their origin. Usually, once someone takes some time to consider the origin of their schema or schemas, they can pretty readily identify why they’ve developed it. Next, make an intentional choice to notice when the schema is driving your behavior or feelings. Remind yourself that the schema is, in fact, problematic, and though it might have once served you in your family of origin, it may not be serving you now.

Tips for combatting schemas:

Challenge your belief system if it is no longer working for you.

Decide on some rebuttal statements to insert in place of your typical critical internal voice and practice talking back to yourself.

Resist behaviors that you know you are doing strictly as a result of the problematic schema.

Determine to make every effort to explore how your schema is impacting your relationships and others. This will inevitably require you to be intentional about not being defensive. If those close to you are safe to be vulnerable with, consider having conversations about how this aspect of you is impacting them. Raising awareness with yourself and others will help you to understand and name the belief that is driving the behaviors or attitudes that are hurting your relationships.

Be patient with yourself, as often these schemas have been a very real part of your life experience and identity for quite some time (and usually for good reason). The fact that you have a problematic schema doesn’t make you a bad person. Rather, the fact that you are willing to own and work on the schema shows that you have what it takes to be accountable, self-aware, and to grow!

For more information on schemas, see Cognitive Consistency and Schema and Schema: Don’t Be a Puppet at the Mercy of Your Past.

For helpful tips on combatting non-productive thoughts, see Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda: Fighting Words.

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