The Punitiveness Schema: Self-Loathing and the Inner Critic

“It’s weak, pathetic”. Brad spat out these syllables in a seething, bitter snarl, when asked how he felt. He was angry, and it felt like he was unhappy with me. But he wasn’t, he was unhappy with himself for being in a psychologist’s rooms.

Talking to yourself can be helpful. Motivation is one of the most helpful aspects of self-talk. Job interviews, exams, asking people to go on dates, these things are daunting. If we were to only do what we were comfortable doing, we would do very little indeed. Self-talk is one way we can motivate ourselves to break free from our comfort zone, to try new, challenging, rewarding, but scary, things.

Not all self-talk is equally helpful. While some people’s inner voice is kind, firm and encouraging, for others this part is cruel, belittling and undermining. This latter group of people have a punitive inner critic and perhaps have a Punitive Schema – a belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes.

The Punitive Schema often develops due to a parent or significant adult acting in a harshly critical, demanding or demeaning manner to a child. If we hear the same negative voice delivering the same negative message year after year, we begin to internalise it. Like a devil which is passed from parent to child. This is what happened to Brad:

“Dad was a cop like me, but old school, really hard”. Brad’s dad ran a tight ship at home – no talking back, no stepping out of line and no emotions. Mockery and violence were his tools. “You couldn’t be sad or scared or anything. He used this sarcastic, girly voice – ‘Bradlina, you’re a biiiig girl’”

It can be tough coping with this vicious inner demon. Some cope by believing it, giving in to it. These people are fearful of trying new things and being wrong, sometimes they drop out, use drugs or alcohol. Others cope by holding themselves to super-high standards:

“I have to be way better than everyone else at everything, I never give myself a break”. Brad had come to me due to anger and depression – his wife had insisted. He was tough to live with; his punitive schema was directed to his loved ones as well. “I just can’t stand how easily everyone else let’s themselves off the hook”.

Other people are often never good enough. People with this schema have strong black and white beliefs about others – some are good some are evil. Resentment is a common emotion for people with this schema. Many people with this schema feel satisfaction in judging or wishing ill on others. They can act in a domineering or aggressive manner with real or perceived wrong doers – this was certainly true for Brad.

Deep inside, many with this schema feel flawed or worthless or weak. The inner critic is difficult to reject unless these vulnerable feelings can be expressed and healed. For Brad this meant healing the vulnerable child within. Feeling okay about himself, made him feel less angry and frustrated with others. He stopped being difficult to be around and started to be a friend to himself.

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