PUNISHMENT: What it IS, What it ISN’T and Why Some of Us Might Need to Get Over Ourselves

We are built with some innate drives and beliefs: food is good and we need to eat it, is a common one.

But most of our brain systems are not developed at birth – the way they form depends on what happens to us. The more frequently something happens, or the more intense the emotional charge around an event, the stronger the connections and pathways. Once these are established, our brains will use the pathways that are the most deeply ingrained, they like to take the easy route – it’s comfortable and our bodies feel like safe places when we do so. This is how habits are formed and maintained.

New habits form when we create new neurological pathways. In order to change a habit, accept a new paradigm or develop a new skill we have to have ‘doses’ of consciousness until the new patterns of behaviour and associated brain structure are fully developed. That’s right: when we change a pattern of behaviour it means we have to rewire our brains. When we rewire our brains our bodies feel uncomfortable and we want the discomfort to go away. No wonder so many of us fail to give up smoking, take up exercise or learn to play the flute.

At a neurological level – punishment is any uncomfortable sensations caused by rewiring. It’s part of the process of coming to conscious (Rational Drive) terms with something we would rather not have to face or deal with, or when creating new habits or learning new skills.

Punishment, in terms of brains rewiring, can also happen when our Physical Drive needs or Emotional Drive needs are not met, or there are a lot of rules around having them met.

This punishment is not useful. Our Physical and Emotional Drives play entirely different roles to our Rational Drive. By not meeting neediness or setting constraints around: healthy food, sleep, attachment, play etc, we do little more than make ourselves (and our kids) slaves to those drives. Addiction, anyone? Struggling with personal boundary setting? Unable to sustain a healthy long-term relationship? Bored? Jealous? Unable to complete stuff?

When dealing with Rational Drives we want to create a new habit, accept an edge to the world or learn a new skill. We don’t have to create extra discomfort – but we do need to hold ourselves (or our kids) conscious of our/their behaviour in order to get that habit or skill established, which in itself is an uncomfortable process. Helping someone avoid the discomfort of rewiring or placing their conscious focus on ourselves just means we steal a chance for them to develop greater neurological efficiency. These approaches reflect the opinions and behaviours from the three key players in Karpman’s Drama Triangle – persecutor, rescuer and victim.

Slipping into these roles is natural for many of us and every time we play these roles we reinforce what we already believe to be true about the world – in our brain, we are correct – whether we are factually accurate or not. You might remember this from my last post:


Persecutors want to remain ‘right’ in their own minds. They focus on suppressing or blocking the uncomfortable sensations they experience when things don’t go to their imagined plan – when life is in any way imperfect or out of order. They attempt to divert their brains’ attention, from their imperfection, by trying to create equal opposing amounts of discomfort in another part of themselves (they eat a cake and feel guilty, which is uncomfortable, so they over-exercise to ease those sensations) or the other person in order to force the changes they want. People who exercise, work or clean to excessive levels – or who follow external guidelines to the letter, are learned persecutors. Persecuting can change habits and brain structures – but the downside is loss of trust in ones own judgment when no-one else is watching or there are no ‘rules’ to follow… ‘good’ kids who go seriously off the rails when they get to college, for example.

However, using an external (metaphoric) stick, to help the other person remain conscious of the goal until it is reached, can work well. We simply have to remove the need for causing pain and replace it with the understanding that the person learning is uncomfortable anyway. The person learning needs to remain conscious of the goal in mind, and holding two imaginary pictures during the process can be helpful – one of the desirable outcome and one of the less than desirable outcome.

Rescuers want to remain ‘good’ in their own minds. They are emotionally swamped by the sensations of discomfort they experience themselves when things don’t go to plan – when things aren’t perfectly pleasant. They don’t like experiencing that discomfort and believe they have to prevent or stop anyone else from experiencing the same sensations. People who are excessively focussed on safety or spend a lot of energy trying to reason with others, are learned rescuers.  Rescuers like the pattern of ‘saving’ or ‘helping’ because it makes them feel better about themselves and they need that to keep their idea of being  ‘good’ people intact.  The downside, for the people being rescued, is loss of trust in their own judgment and the inability to accurately gauge risk and rewards…people who constantly self-sabotage, have low self-esteem (bravado, sassiness, timidity) and never seem to reach their genetic potential are an example.

However, using simple and easy to understand explanations can help the other person accept a new behaviour or paradigm. We simply have to remove our need to ‘help’ and replace it with the understanding that our teaching, and trying to convince another person to be reasonable, can interfere with the other person’s learning. ‘The more talking the less learning’. Explanations are statements of fact. Even a simple, “This is what we do in our house,” can be a perfectly acceptable explanation.

Victims want to remain ‘blameless’ in their own minds. They are utterly engulfed in the sensations of discomfort they experience when life doesn’t revolve around them – life is, pretty much, always imperfect and they absolutely believe someone else should fix that for them.  People who turn any situation into a ‘it’s not fair’ or ‘why are you picking on me’ type situation, are learned victims. Becoming a victim can change someone else’s habits and brain structures – but the downside is co-dependence and toxic-shame for the other (yes, the other can be a child), when the victim’s desires are not met. Interestingly, whenever we stop rescuing victims they always think we are persecuting them.

However, pointing out that actions of one person can and do affect others or another can be useful. We simply have to remove the ‘poor me’ stance and replace it with consciousness around the mess or the pain or the tears that have happened as a natural consequence to the less than ideal action or inaction. Making reparation of some kind is also a reasonable expectation – it helps that rewiring and helps restore relationships.

This was staged. Promise. I don't take photos of kids beating each other up.

So proper punishment, at a biological level, IS discomfort experienced in our bodies as part of the natural process of becoming conscious of our behaviour while we create a new habit, learn a new skill or accept a new paradigm. Once it all becomes automated the sensations of discomfort go away.

It ISN’T necessary to inflict extra pain but it is useful to help someone complete the rewiring process, which is in itself an uncomfortable thing to do.

It IS a natural part of becoming consciously aware of something we don’t want to accept and it helps our Rational Drive to develop properly. It can happen in a second or it can bubble up through our brain systems over time.

It ISN’T something that is at all useful when dealing with Physical Drives or Emotional Drives.

It IS about learning where the edges of the world are; it ISN’T about our need to be right.

It IS about learning what is appropriate and what is not; it ISN’T about our need to believe we are good people.

It IS about learning our actions affect others and the world around us; it ISN’T about who’s to blame.

Unless we remain aware, detached and calm it can all look the same. No wonder so many of us are confused.

For more innovative and science based ideas about dealing with other people buy my book,



About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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4 Responses to PUNISHMENT: What it IS, What it ISN’T and Why Some of Us Might Need to Get Over Ourselves

  1. Mamma_Simona says:

    Wow, Karyn, thanks so much for this brilliant explanation! I first heard about Karpman’s Drama Triangle when I was in a clinic recovering from depression. It “sort of” made sense, but I didn’t REALLY get it until right now!! I’m SO glad I know you!! Love, S. xoxo

  2. Another wonderful post!

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