Why do I punish others and how do I stop?
May 7, 2014 3:59 AM   Subscribe

I recently had conflict with a friend and during our weepy make-up session, she said she felt like I was punishing her for her mistake. This really resonated with me because exes have said that to me in the past so I know I have tendencies to do this. I would like to understand more about this behavior, why I do it, and how to stop.

So this latest example, briefly: A went through a horrible breakup last year and I was really there for her during that time. It wasn't at the time intended as a quid pro quo thing but I ended up going through a breakup same time next year and felt that she wasn't there for me at all, because of various actions (which for the purposes of this question please accept that they were shitty things to do). It culminated in me instigating a weepy conversation in which I said how much I needed her etc.

Anyway, cut to two weeks later and A has forgotten my birthday. I am not normally weird about this (I get that birthdays are not a big deal) but I guess the combination of (a) being the first birthday on my own after a long term r/ship and her knowing how it felt because she went through the same thing (b) her usually making a massive deal about people's birthdays (c) me sending her flowers on her bday the year before and (d) having JUST had the conversation about me needing her - made me have a bit of a spaz. Cue weepy conversation 2 in which I tried to explain why I was hurt.

I completely get on a rational level that she was really busy at work and in the grand scheme of things this is absolutely nothing.

During the conversation she kept apologising and said how bad she felt, but she also said she felt like I was punishing her. She said she felt like it was now "two strikes against her". As I have had this said to me before, I would like to understand what this is about.

My initial thoughts are maybe:
(a) I have a tone problem
(b) I struggle to articulate when I'm feeling hurt so possibly harp on longer than I should
(c) I am making people feel attacked
(d) I often don't know how to react/feel overwhelmed and shut down communication. In this case A called/texted/emailed the next day and I didn't pick up because I didn't know how to have the conversation without crying - so I texted her saying "Sorry I don't know what to say" which I fully get sounds sassy but I didn't intend it to be. I am definitely guilty of silent treatment.
(e) I claim to forgive people but I don't???

I would like to learn how to express my feelings without people feeling like I am punishing them! I will bring this up with my therapist but thought I would get some preliminary ideas from you.
posted by nvly to Human Relations (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Oh hey, are you me? This is totally what I default to wrt conflict resolution if I'm not super conscious. This is an ongoing concern that I've worked through in therapy, but what has sort of helped me in the moment (before I initiate any conversations with the person I'm feeling aggrieved by and am purely just in the 'feeling shit' part of things) is to practice mindfulness meditation. It felt really woo at first, and requires a bit of repetition before it becomes more second nature, but bc I'm totally prone to just throwing a WAH-fest without even knowing in my own head what my issues are, it has helped to concretely acknowledge what my emotions are doing. And after I've sat with them for awhile, if I'm still in need of broaching the subject with the other party, I generally am able to articulate how I'm feeling much better.

That said, what you've described doesn't leap out to me as, like, shitty friendship tactics; you didn't go into details about what was said in the convos with A, but on the face of it, restating that you were hurt because of her behaviour doesn't strike me as going super OTT on her... But taking your initial thoughts as things that you truly think you do when expressing negative feelings, the above suggestion could be helpful.
posted by catch as catch can at 4:30 AM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

f) You're fixated too much on this person and what she is doing for you and what you are doing for her.

Stop keeping score and try and make more friends.
posted by empath at 4:34 AM on May 7, 2014 [14 favorites]

How broad-based is your social life? Do you have work friends, hobby friends, guy friends, a group of high school friends you still see, a few close friends? Or do you focus on one person at a time? I'm kind of a small-group one-person person and when I was younger I tended to put more emphasis on certain relationships than they merited. If you were still in a relationship you may have had no expectations from this friend on your birthday, but because you were alone you wanted this person to fill the gap. Not really fair if you look at it objectively. Try broadening your social circles & lower your expectations of others. When you feel the need to be treated, treat yourself, don't wait for others to do it for you.
posted by headnsouth at 4:47 AM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Oops just to clarify - no I would describe myself as a hyper-extrovert, and I do have a lot of friends from various circles. In fact the only reason why I had the conversations with her was because I am trying to self-improve - in the past I would just walk away from a friendship that wasn't reciprocal (on the basis that I would just hang out with other people), this time I wanted to try and resolve conflict instead.

I agree I shouldn't keep score though and that I am currently sensitive to this one person over others (which is not fair to her).

My question is more I guess how to have these conversations without punishing the other person.

Hope this clarifies!
posted by nvly at 4:54 AM on May 7, 2014

There are a lot of "reasons" one might become a punisher. It may have been the way things were done in your family. It may be that you feel people don't take your feeling seriously unless you go out to show them. The only way to know for sure is to spend time trying to understand how you feel. The first step is to become aware of it (you've taken that one) as many punishers do it unconsciously and need it pointed out. Punishing also creates a relationship where you're in charge. If you feel insecure about someone, you may wish for an illusion of control. Once you understand it, you can find better ways of dealing with the underlying situation.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:00 AM on May 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Years of marriage have taught me that it's worth bringing up hurt feelings only if there's something concrete the other person can do. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut and try to forgive the person and keep your interactions with them positive, and you'll find that your feelings will change as long as the relationship is generally good. Because as you've pointed out, the hurt feelings are not necessarily their fault. And you need to accept that they're not always going to act the way you want them to. So if you can say to your friend, "I felt really hurt when you weren't there for me after my breakup, AND it would make me feel a lot better if you would ____" -- THEN tell her. Until you can add that "you can make it better by doing X," there's really no point, and that will stop you from venting without any clear idea of why you're really upset or what you need. And then if she does X (which may be, for instance, "apologize" or "spend a few nights hanging out with me and letting me cry on your shoulder") then be grateful. Either way, express the hurt feelings once and then do your best to not mention it again. The "punishing" may be because she feels like she had this difficult conversation with you, she acknowledged that she acted in a shitty way and apologized, and now you keep bringing it up and she doesn't know what else she can do.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:11 AM on May 7, 2014 [71 favorites]

Have you heard the relationship bank account metaphor before? You put deposits in, of good things that you do for people. You take deposits out when you do things that cause some hurt to them. (Or even, to a smaller degree, annoyance, say.) If you want to maintain friendships, more stuff has to go in than goes out. But it's not the individual transactions that matter--it's the balance. There's lots of ways that this can go wrong. You can focus on your positives and the other person's negatives and not vice versa. You can ignore small things that they've done to compensate for big things, which is where grudges go wrong. You can assign too much value to some things, where the other person had no way of knowing.

Mostly, though, it kind of sounds like your real problem is that you aren't actually communicating about these things until you're past the point of being able to deal with it without it being seriously upsetting. So there's no way that conversation can go well, and therefore the person on the other end feels like they were set up to feel bad. Opening up communication earlier might just show you that you're investing too much in some people who aren't really worth investing that much in, but it might also give some people an opportunity to redeem themselves before you've got them so far into the red and surprised them with a bunch of metaphorical overdraft fees.

Some people are just going to be takers in some interactions, but if you notice this early on, you can pull back before you have to be really upset with them for doing it.
posted by Sequence at 5:13 AM on May 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

"Sorry I don't know what to say" is pretty close to a good response actually. I'd modify it slightly: "Sorry, I am not ready to talk about this yet without it being a very emotional and probably unproductive conversation.
But if you have things you need to say to me now, I can listen, but I probably won't be able to add much yet."

Also, there are a lot of expectations here. Being "there for someone" during a bad breakup is exactly not a quid pro quo thing, as you said - yet you did build up an expectation anyhow. To me, this indicates that you maybe gave more than you wanted to give. It built hidden expectations, ones that you may not have been aware were there until now.

I want to say this gently but it sounds like you have a lot of eggs in this friend-basket. It is no one else's responsibility to remember your first birthday after a breakup but your own. If it was important to you, you needed to communicate that by saying something like "My first birthday after the breakup is coming up and it would mean a lot to me if you did something for me." But to that end - your first birthday after a breakup? ... This sounds a bit needy and strange to me. I might re-evaluate how much you expect from your friends. Part of me feels like you are treating this friend more like a girlfriend and less like a friend. You're making demands on her time and attention that don't seem appropriate.

These invisible needs have to stop. You need to figure out what you need and tell people. I think that the answer to not punishing people is to be more clear in your communications. Be upfront about what you need, and then let it go when you don't get it - particularly if your need is something you can do for yourself. If you wanted a party, you should have thrown a party. I'd you wanted balloons, you could have gotten your own balloons. If you wanted your friend to remember your birthday, you could have reminded her how important it was to you.

Once you get in a conflict, again - be clear about your needs. Communicate respectfully and honestly about needing space, but let the other person talk if they need to. The reason that she felt punished was because she had no idea if you were still processing, if you were done with the friendship entirely, or what was going on based on your curt text back to her. A bit more detail from you - and allowance for her to meet her needs - would go a long way. "I can't talk but I can listen" acknowledges that she might have needs that are not being met and that you still want to meet those needs in a way that "I am not ready to talk" does not.

I actually think that what you have here is an expectations problem. So I would do two things: re-evaluate my expectations, and communicate those expectations to others. Good luck.

Also, I think the advice to get more friends is spot-on. You sound like you are expecting a lot more from one friend than most mature adults would be comfortable with.
posted by sockermom at 5:14 AM on May 7, 2014 [9 favorites]

Let's explore why you feel that you can't "let it go".

In both instances, you went to your friend AFTER both events were over. You explained how hurt you were. What were you hoping to achieve? You clearly know that you wanted her to feel guilty. Mission Accomplished. Now what?

Instead, next time it happens (and it will) practice letting it go.

Unless you think your friend was deliberately ignoring you for no reason, trust that there are things in her life that are more important that you were to her, in that moment. And heads up, that's okay.

Instead of focusing on what kind of friend she is to you, focus on what kind of friend you are to her. What a gift it would be that instead of calling her up and making her responsible for your feelings, if you called her up and said, "Hey, I'm still celebrating my birthday, I'm making it a birthday month, I know you're busy, but let's get together for dinner some time this week or next."

You may have some warped feeling in your head that she is somehow taking advantage of you, how so? You're friends. Friends understand that people get busy and that birthdays are no biggie past the age of 10.

So next time you feel hurt and you want to vent about it to the person who hurt you, decide to forgive and let it go. Say nothing. Think of it as a gift to her.

If you need something, ask for it. "Hey! My breakup has been really horrible. Do you have time to have a 'misery night?' We can watch shitty rom-coms, drink wine and eat bon-bons."

Stop letting your hurt feelings run you. Hurt will fade, but if you're forgiving of people's faults, you can keep friends for a lifetime.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:26 AM on May 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

in the past I would just walk away from a friendship that wasn't reciprocal

This is still keeping score. You can adjust expectations from a friendship without walking away from it completely.

If you find yourself investing too much into a friendship without getting anything in return, you can always just dial back the amount of time and work you're putting into it without either walking away completely or creating a dramatic scene about it.

It sounds like you have some attachment anxiety and probably see people as either a part of you or nothing to you and life allows a whole lot more gradations than that.

Being demanding about what friends owe you is one sure fire way of having fewer friends, though.

Think about giving your time to friends the same way you think about loaning money to them. Don't give more than you can afford, and don't expect or ask to be paid back.
posted by empath at 6:00 AM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I make a big stinking deal about birthdays, because I love celebrating them, so I kinda get why you'd be upset if a friend forgot about it.

In the past, I'd show similar tendencies, and let things sort of stew and fester until it got to the point where I was acting like a spoiled kid because I was past the point of compromising about anything.

What I had to learn to do was to remember to do things for friends only because I genuinely wanted to, and not because I expected to be "reimbursed" for them. Also, if/when something rolled around that was super important to me, like my birthday, it was important to speak out and tell somebody that "Hey, my birthday's coming up, can we go out to dinner?". Most of my friends didn't mind celebrating with me, especially if I'd been having a rough go of it, but they couldn't read my mind and figure out that I wanted to do something.

It's still hard for me not to keep score sometimes, but learning to communicate about that I want to do/would like before it got to the point where I was snarling at anyone and everyone because they'd disappointed me for something they didn't even know about certainly helped.
posted by PearlRose at 8:18 AM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I can't tell from your post how this precisely went down for you but I'll share my experience:

I have had interaction with people who are like this. They way they let you know you're in the shithouse is by talking in a condescending tone, pointing out mistakes and pointedly waiting for an apology. The conversations are very heavy and laden with expectation. Like: I am right, my point of view is the only correct one, and there are no shades of grey, you must agree with my view and act accordingly in order for me to forgive you. The conversation is not a dialog of understanding each other's points of view about the conflict. Furthermore, after the conversation, they are still a little distant and don't immediately slip back into happy friendship land. It's like whatever you do it isn't enough to make ammends.

IF they talk to you. The other way I've seen a person deal with it is to politely ice you out, in that snooty passive aggressive way that makes you want to say, "what the fuck is your problem NOW?" It's as though they expect that you know what they're thinking & why they're upset, without them having to open up enough to just communicate and tell you what's wrong. They're so involved with their own hurt that the normal rules of civility disappear and it turns into emotional mud-slinging.

So how to overcome? The advice above is on the nose. Own your pain, own your happiness & take responsibility for how you feel. You can't dump it on them and expect them to make it better. That's a kind of learned helplessness. Learn to communicate effectively, honoring the rules of healthy boundaries. Accept that your point of view is not the ultimate one.

As for keeping score... Don't keep score. You think keeping score will keep you safe and keep you from being taking advantage of but all it does is hurt your own feelings and keep you from being your natural self. When you let go of keeping score, your friendships go from one of 'tit-for-tat' into one where you only do what you naturally feel like doing, given what both people are bringing to the table. THAT prevents you from being taken advantage of. You're not doing something with the expectation of getting something later, you are doing what you feel like doing.

Finally I think this stuff does stem from neediness, and there are lots of sites on the web that can help you with that. Just google "how to overcome neediness" or search through ask.metafilter and you'll get lots of good ideas & advice.

Good luck. We all have shit to overcome to become our full & confident selves.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:34 AM on May 7, 2014 [13 favorites]

I keep seeing questions on Ask that seem to come from a similar notion that adult non-romantic non-family relationships are the kind of thing you sit down and negotiate, and I just don't believe that is actually how it works in the real world.

You choose a friend based on who they are, not what they do for you. It's the one relationship in adult life that doesn't have a lot of rules and restrictions - it's not a partner or a sibling or a coworker. It's about whatever it is they bring to your life as-is - chronically late but the best person to go bowling with, or you have the awesomest conversations but she travels for work a lot so you don't get to see her that often. You don't get to scold for being late or unavailable, though; you don't get to demand they give you something else. This isn't monogamy and there's no permanent obligation, you're not owed a well-rounded friendship.

You don't end friendships for not being "reciprocal". You end them, or adjust the distance accordingly, because they're not good for you or are only good at a distance. People who are mean to you, or use you as their emotional punching bag, or take dangerous risks around you, or you just plain don't like them or they don't seem to like you, those are the people you back away from. People you like a lot, even when they're too busy to give you the attention you want from them, are the people you need to learn to accept for who they are so you can have the intangible benefit they bring to your life.

The only serious sit-down conversation I would have with even my closest friends would only be for their own good, not mine. I have friends that I have an agreement with that we will step up and say something if a mental health check is necessary, even if it makes the other person upset and maybe even mad for a while. I notice that among my closest friends we do make sure to say thank you for doing special things - a birthday fuss, helping with a funeral, a pep talk during a bad time - but we'd never call each other out for not doing those things. We're adults, and we all have busy internal and external lives and we do the best we can and are grateful for each others' company.

In summary, you stop punishing people by not punishing them. Stop yelling at them for not doing what you want. Be grateful for what you do get and stop resenting what you don't get.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:38 AM on May 7, 2014 [31 favorites]

Best answer: Basically, somewhere in your mind there exists the belief IT IS YOUR FAULT I AM HURTING. I CANNOT FEEL GOOD UNTIL YOU DO SOMETHING.

Not to get all zen about it, but in cases like these we only hurt our own feelings.

I know that sounds weird. Just consider the possibility though. Consider the mantra: all my feelings come from me. Repeat it until it makes sense.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:40 AM on May 7, 2014 [17 favorites]

Seems like there have been a lot of friendship questions on AskMe lately and the more I think about it, the more I think that trying to confront friends about anything is pointless. I'm very much in agreement with Lyn Never's assessment of friendship. A friend is a friend because you like them and they are generally good to you and vice versa. When one or both of these things stop being the case, they are no longer your friend, by definition. Naturally, there's a lot of gray area in there for human selfishness and fuckups. When a friend disappoints you, you just basically have to ask yourself if you still like them enough to keep holding up your end of things. If the answer is yes, they'll either redeem themselves soon or keep disappointing you until the answer becomes no.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:12 AM on May 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

Just to add to what Lyn Never and Jess the Mess said about friendship: a friendship is not a romantic partnership. I owe my friends much less than I owe my partner, and the same is true for them. If a friend lets me down I just re-adjust our level of friendship in my mind and I don't count on them for those things anymore. No drama. Having long, tearful conversations is something I would only really do with my boyfriend at this stage in life, and I hate those and we've only done that once since we started dating a year ago.

I have met people who treat their friends and significant others much more similarly and I've noticed that they tend to feel more unhappy more often. People can't meet all of your needs. I go to friends for fun times and to talk about life and men and my job and our shared interests. I go to my boyfriend for mutual support and sex and great conversations and love. I go to my parents for unconditional support. I look to my cat for unconditional love. I go to myself for happiness. Different people/living and breathing creatures have different roles in my life, and that is very healthy. Sure there is some overlap, but not much.

Relying on a friend to "be there for you" when the "there for you" is not a five-alarm crisis (like my mom just died, or my boyfriend was in a car accident, or I lost my cat) is not going to satisfy you. 99% of people do not want to be in someone else's pocket like that, thinking about them every day and so on, unless they're in a committed long term romantic relationship together. If you are not in that kind of relationship you'll probably have to meet that own need for yourself.
posted by sockermom at 10:42 AM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I tend to feel "punished" in these sorts of conversations if my friend or partner seems to want more than an apology but won't tell me what it is (sometimes because they haven't yet figured it out themselves) or won't accept my apology and then drop it (often because they want more but don't know how or don't want to ask for it directly).

The solution in both those situations is for the person who's hurt to figure out what would make the situation right (at least in a general way) before approaching the person who hurt them.

It's also generally helpful for the hurt person to focus on their own feelings, rather than making a laundry list of the other person's hurtful actions.

"Hey, I'm feeling a bit needy and neglected right now. Can we get together for dinner as a late-birthday celebration?"

is likely going to elicit a much more positive response than

"You forgot my birthday! I'm really hurt! It's really hurtful that you forgot my birthday, especially after we had that long conversation about how hurtful it was that you weren't there for me during my break-up. You keep hurting me."

In my view, any conversation in which my conversational partner "keeps apologising" is one in which I'm doing a shitty job at communicating what I really need from them.

If they've apologized, accept it. If you can't accept it, figure out why and then let them know what's blocking your ability to accept their apology. If you just keep saying the same thing in different ways, and they keep apologizing, ad nauseum, then nothing's getting solved and both of you are going to continue to feel bad.
posted by jaguar at 11:07 AM on May 7, 2014 [10 favorites]

I don't know if this applies to your situation, but I once read that people with secure attachment style tend to articulate their feelings when they are upset (trusting that the other person will care about what they have to say), while people with insecure attachment styles tend to act out their feelings when they are upset (assuming that the other person will not care unless they demonstrate how awful they feel and make the other person feel that awful, too).

If that resonates at all, if you find that you tend to demonstrate hurt rather than articulate it, it may be worthwhile to flip that and examine whether you're expecting other people to demonstrate how bad they feel about hurting you rather than trusting that they actually feel sorry when they say they do. Your own dramatics may be an unconscious way of triggering the other person to act as dramatically so that you can "believe" their sincerity -- knowing that mature, grounded adults don't actually do the rending of garments and tearing of hair to express their negative emotions might help you recalibrate what you need in order to believe someone's emotional sincerity.
posted by jaguar at 11:30 AM on May 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

I don't think you're "keeping score". It's quite natural to be aware of the balances or imbalances in relationships as they occur without consciously tallying anything. Whether a relationship is balanced or imbalanced is already naturally there in the dynamic of the relationship. I think your articulation and description of the events are used after the fact to describe what was already there.

I think your friend may not be very naturally conscientious about being there for her friends and being appreciative of the support that she has gotten from her friends. She feels that she is not intending to hurt you and so therefore you being hurt in itself feels like a punishment to her because she wasn't actually trying to hurt you, and now it's something she has to "deal with". She was just being herself. But I think it's okay for you to feel hurt and I wouldn't assume that her saying that she feels she's being "punished" necessarily means you did anything wrong. It's possible that the two of you are just going to feel differently about this because you are different people coming from different places.

Personally I would be disappointed if a close friend wasn't there for me after a difficult break up, and who says birthdays aren't a big deal? If your birthday is a big deal to you then it's a big deal to you. In my opinion, your description of things warrants upsetness.

I can't know why your friend said she thinks you're trying to punish her, as no one here can. Perhaps you are in some way trying to "get more" from the exchange that you seem to be on the surface and than you are allowing yourself to see. I think it's fine for you to be upset and tell your friend so, just make sure that when you do, you understand very well what is going on with you. Approaching it in a mindful manner as suggested above could go a long way to eliminate the risk that you might actually be trying to "punish" her or make the exchange about something that it isn't.
posted by Blitz at 12:21 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Very interesting post. I sense that some of the suggestions might be things that would be a lot easier for people that had replied than for you. Might be worth asking 'what would a friend have to do to make x,y,z ok?' (Not saying this would/could ever happen).. but would anything be big enough? Or is it touching on a deeper wound.. of not feeling loved/lovable etc? What are your deeper beliefs about yourself? Shoring up esteem is a big job and reciprocity in my view is a healthy thing to seek out... the concept seems reasonable but maybe you need some new and more effective tools to harness it. I'd hazard a guess you don't want to hurt your friends but more 'make them understand'???

Can you practice clearly expressing needs and wants first in less emotionally charged situations?
posted by tanktop at 1:52 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Gosh so many good answers and things to think about!

It's sobering to hear some of these things that definitely apply to me. I especially appreciated the answers that had tips on how to effect change - by owning my emotions and being more self-reliant, letting go and not keeping score, and most importantly not having these conversations unless I know there is something that can be done about it. I think I definitely let it get to the point where there is literally nothing they could do, I just want to indulge some kind of victimhood.

I also need to trust my friends. I think my insecurity that probably always existed but now amplified post-breakup has made me suspicious of their intentions.

Thanks all!
posted by nvly at 4:33 PM on May 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

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