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Cumulative Punishment: What It Is And How You Can Stop It


Have you ever heard of “cumulative punishment?” Well, we hadn’t either until one day when Cris worked with a client who had been talking about her goals. The client noticed that if she set a goal and didn’t meet that goal, she experienced “cumulative punishment.” 

Her first punishment was not receiving the reward of accomplishing the goal. And, the second one is self-inflicted as she begins being very critical of herself.

What is cumulative punishment?

It turns out that “cumulative punishment” is actually a legal term (yes, we looked it up) and it’s defined as:

“An increased punishment inflicted for a second or third conviction of the same offense, under the statutes relating to habitual criminals.”

But for non-legal purposes, it’s that period of beating yourself up right after you were unable to complete a task as well as feeling ashamed for not getting it done. And it gets worse if this period prevents you from completing other tasks, causing you to snowball into a cycle of shame and criticism. Harsh, right?

The impact of cumulative punishment 

As you can imagine, the feelings that cumulative punishment can create can be very damaging. Here are a few examples:

  • Reputation. Cumulative punishment can affect our reputation with others, especially if the goal was to meet a deadline or falling short of what someone else was expecting from you. 
  • Judgment. Cris recalled how this can be very difficult for those with ADHD as they may be quickly judged in a negative light and may miss out on opportunities as a result. This can then lead to negative thoughts that can spiral until you’re questioning who you are and where you think you’re going.
  • Perspective. Cumulative punishment can also skew our outlook on life and cause feelings of depression and sadness. 



How you can stop cumulative punishment 

We can be our own worst critics. That’s why we need regular reminders, even from ourselves, that we’re human. And though we will have bad days, that doesn’t mean we can’t do hard things or be successful. 

Experiencing cumulative punishment and subsequently pulling yourself out of it can be seen as a three-step process. 

Here’s how Cris describes it:

Step 1. The shame spiral begins from not completing the task (“I’m a horrible person!”) 

Step 2. That is exacerbated by negative self-talk that keeps you from getting back on track. 

Step 3. For Cris, the third step is showing herself some compassion and grace. Deb’s third step also includes self-compassion, and then she adds the extra step of strategizing the best next thing she can do to get aligned with her goals again.

As you can see, step 3 is a game-changer. It’s the path out of the continuous cycle of beating yourself up. 

So, how can you stop the pileup of negative thoughts and self-beration? There are some specific things you can do (YOUR step 3) to stop the negative spiraling in its tracks. Even better news — you can start gathering some of these things ahead of time.

You can:

1. Talk to a trusted someone 

Our first tip for when you find yourself in this situation is to make sure you have people who can remind you that this experience is not your entire reality. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, colleague, therapist, coach, or mentor. Often, getting your feelings out can help move you toward a more positive outlook.

And if you have limited support or can’t reach someone to talk to right away, try talking through it with yourself. When you notice that you may be approaching a shame spiral, remind yourself that this is one moment in time. Your whole life is not reduced to this one mistake you made. 

Remind yourself of times when you successfully course corrected or turned a not-so-good situation around. And, think back to a time when you had a rockstar day. Sit with those good feelings and take note of what you did well.

2. Take action

Just thinking about what your next step will be to get you back on track can make a big difference. What’s one thing you can do right now to shift your mindset? 

Some examples of action you can take include:

  • Journaling. Write down how you’re feeling so you can start moving on.
  • Reading. Say some positive mantras out loud or read some of your favorite motivational quotes. Save some quotes that you really like for days when you need them.
  • Moving. Movement (even just walking) can reduce feelings of stress and anxiousness. 
  • Planning. Remember we said just thinking about your next step can be helpful? This is the part where you get to decide what your next action will be. Getting in action mode can take up a lot of space in your brain and leave no room for negative thoughts.


3. Be reasonable with yourself

This may take some practice, but it helps to be aware of when you minimize legitimate reasons for missing a deadline, such as not feeling well, getting bad news, etc. 

To all the high achievers out there, understand that you absolutely cannot be productive all the time. More importantly, this does not make you a failure. Remember, we are human and things can happen unexpectedly. Your well-being and getting sufficient rest are just as important as getting things done.

4. Celebrate your successes — even the small ones

Remember, the little wins matter too. Deb has a Ta-Da List that reminds her of her little wins. She may not have gotten all the big things done, but she did do some things so she gives herself a high five. 

She takes this a step further by planning her next action to tackle what she didn’t do, but only after celebrating what she did accomplish.

How do Cris and Deb handle cumulative punishment?

Besides some of the things we already mentioned, we both do other things to keep the positive vibes flowing even when things feel a little out of control. 

For Cris, love notes work really. She has a board in her bathroom where she writes little notes to herself to remind herself that she’s doing better than she thinks. Cris starts her day with positivity and fills up her mind with good emotions — before the work day even begins.

Deb knows she’s being hard on herself when she calls herself “Deborah” so she takes this as a sign to go outside, take some deep breaths, and walk around a bit. Taking “green breaks” shifts her perspective, gives her a change of scenery, and a way to move the tension from her mind and body. 

Final Word

In summary, be kind to yourself after not accomplishing a goal. Give yourself grace and talk to yourself the way you would a friend. 

And, speaking of a friend, go talk to one! It’s way harder to go through these moments alone.

Try writing some love notes to yourself, make a Ta-Da List, or give yourself the gift of a small act of kindness because you are deserving and worthy of it.

If you need some help getting out of a shame spiral, download our list of positive affirmations!