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Punishment doesn’t enforce boundaries

A lot of people confuse enforcing a boundary with punishment.

Most people’s boundaries fail for 3 main reasons:

  • they don’t set them (e.g. covert contracts and people pleasing)
  • they think telling the person again counts as enforcing the boundary (it only weakens it)
  • they think punishing the other person will motivate them to behave better

You can go look at the research yourself: punishment simply doesn’t work. Whether it’s giving a child a time-out or sentencing a criminal to imprisonment, statistically speaking their behavior generally gets worse after a punishment, not better.

And that’s because when you punish someone with the eye-for-an-eye approach – harming them because they harmed you or someone else – they will just develop resentment towards you for being the one who punished them.

They won’t be able to connect it with their own behavior very well. People just aren’t very good at that.

Enforcing a boundary is different. It’s not about punishment or causing pain. It’s about taking away the person’s ability to breach the boundary. It’s taking away any chance they have of doing that again, usually by removing privileges until their behavior improves.

Child keeps watching TV instead of cleaning up? Take away the TV’s power cord until the room has been cleaned for 5 days in a row.

Grandparents keep giving your kid sweets after you told them to stop? They can no longer watch the kid unsupervised until you see at least a week of improved compliance.

Friend keeps gossiping about you? Cut all contact until you’re sure he’s stopped doing it for at least 3 months.

When they earn the privilege back by respecting the boundary, they will associate good behaviour with reward, which sticks in the brain a hell of a lot better than punishment!

2 Responses

  1. You want to give the person a sense of cause and effect, where they see that their behaviour causes the loss of privileges

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