Am I being punished?
I am not sure why this is, but sometimes phrases clump together and I hear people saying them in varied circumstances: in the store or the session or the party I am attending. This week the phrase is, “I must be getting punished” as people describe getting sick, or not getting the job promotion or their cat getting sick and costing a big vet bill. If I believed that bad fortune, illness or injury were punishments, I would certainly become depressed. I know that I will without doubt encounter problems of those types in the future. Does this mean there is a malevolent force waiting to hurt me for infractions (or in some vernaculars, sins)?
Here is the problem: we all do things that may or may not be a good idea to do. Any of us can be careless, lack forethought or even intentionally break a social or moral rule. And then we often bear the consequences of those mistakes. Carelessness may result in a valued item being broken. Lack of forethought may mean paying a late charge on a bill that did not get mailed, or breaking a social rule may anger someone over perceived impoliteness. Those are direct consequences of actions. If a person then must walk around the world waiting for a punishment, it adds guilt to any natural consequence of unhappiness and misery can result.
So why do so many of us speak of being punished when we suffer a painful experience? It seems this is an explanation of misfortune that has a regrettable downside, and if it is true, bodes ill for most of us. If a person is being punished that means there would have been a way to AVOID the punishment by being good, or at least better than they were. If someone could do everything correctly, then that person would not be punished by a breaking a foot or a receiving a big car repair bill. If we believe the bad situations are directly our fault because they could have been prevented, then we would have to worry constantly about being perfect. Oh dear.
Why would we do this to ourselves, this believing that bad things happen to punish us? It is because our brains want REASONS. None of us likes uncertainty or murkiness. And there is even a part of the brain that explains things we experience (whether physical sensations or external events) in the absence of a clear reason. Superstitions are born of explanations such as, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” or “Break a mirror, 7 years bad luck,” or “Open an umbrella indoors, and something bad will happen to you.” So your brain wants the explanation, but in that neurobiological fact also lies a choice. How do you explain it? Your brain has the capacity to choose what to think.
This is where mindful awareness comes in handy.
You can make an explanation about how you deserve bad fortune, or you can choose a different reason. You can choose to believe that every person experiences misfortune. For example, you can choose to explain that not getting that promotion could happen to anyone and you will use the unfortunate experience to learn something or to practice the virtue of congratulating another person on their success. You can choose to believe that the injury that prevented you from playing in the championship game is not what you wanted, but did not happen just to teach you a lesson. You can find a different explanation. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.
Your brain is powerful. You can choose to NOT JUDGE the why it happened but simply ask yourself, “Now what? Since it has happened what would be the best thing to do next?” Focusing your brain’s energy on recovery from the mistake, the injury, or the illness directs your attention to the things over which you may have some control. Choosing the next action you will take is a positive and powerful way to change your explanation of punishment into an intention to bounce back. Imagining a positive outcome is the surest way to lighten your depression by switching you into problem-solving mode – the mode of self-efficacy and the antithesis of depression.
That leads to resilient responses. Then, by focusing on what is still within your control, you will find new responses to challenging situations, and that can further increase your abilities to cope. As you observe the outcome of this more resilient response to difficulties, you will less often feel that your problems are punishment. Rather, you will feel up to facing a problem and making a positive action response to it.
The next time you wonder if you are being punished, try wondering, “What if I am NOT being punished?” Then choose instead to ask yourself the question, “Now what? How do I improve this or make the best of this?” Use the power of your brain to choose an explanation that promotes resilient responses to stress and improve your well being. Not only will you feel better immediately but you will increase your abilities to handle problems resourcefully in the long run.