Signs that you are being motivated by punishment

 In Group coaching, Transformative Justice

When somebody hurts us, it can bring up a lot of really intense feelings and dysregulation. It can cause us to endure a lot of stress or go into states of crisis.

It is not uncommon for feelings of wanting to punish someone for what they did to arise. Often we need to move through those feelings before deciding we want to see the person take accountability and responsibility. Feelings like anger can exist for long periods of time, but what emotions are driving and influencing our anger can change drastically. The same for feelings of sadness, fear, shame, etc.

There are specific feelings and intentions that motivate punishment.

It is good to be able to learn them and learn how to notice them because as we will discover later in the month, they are not strong motivators for accountability or responsibility. They often will not align with our values and this is because when we are motivated by punishment, we are often operating from a place of crisis and heightened physiological response. Our primary goal in these states is to protect and defend ourselves without much care for the other person. However; when we respond like that, we are likely to trigger the same response in the other person. That is why it is not conducive to accountability or responsibility. If I respond with a fight threat response, I will trigger a threat response in the other person. And as I’ve mentioned before; learning, dialogue and negotiation are not able to happen during threat and heightened physiological responses.

I originally put these motivations together as a takeaway from conversations at the Politics, Punishment and Protection conference I attended in the spring facilitated by Kai Cheng Thom and Asam Ahmad. I’ve since modified and revised them to create this list:

Signs that you are being motivated by punishment:


You are trying to manage someone’s behaviours and responses. You do not believe they should have a say in what their punishment should be. You also do not believe they should be able to regulate their own responses or emotions. You want to tell them how to behave and respond and you want them to agree without room for dialogue.


Feelings of revenge or vengeance are governing your decisions. There is a strong desire and compulsion to ‘get back at them’ or ‘make them pay’ for what they’ve done. Usually this is because you believe that they deserve this treatment because they are bad or unsafe. These feelings do not take into consideration the wellbeing or safety of the other person in the present or future.

Intent to Harm

Your requests or behaviours are intended to hurt or harm; alienate or deprive. Because we are being motivated by revenge, our requests or behaviours are usually intended to ensure the person suffers.


Inability to humanize the person who harmed and unwilling to tolerate it by others. Our ability to treat someone in the ways mentioned above is usually because we have lost the capacity or will to humanize them. Their humanity has become abstracted and replaced with attributes to villainize them.  This makes it easier for us to justify our behaviour, and to convince others to feel and behave the same way. It is incredibly difficult for us to stay regulated if we see anyone trying to add nuance or opposing viewpoints towards our treatment of the person.

So if you notice yourself behaving and engaging in some of these ways, it is a good cue that you are being motivated by punishment. Is this the best time to make decisions about how you want to work towards repair? I personally do not believe so. When we behave outside of alignment with our values, we are very likely to act and make decisions we regret later or that we will notice don’t actually make us feel better/contribute to our own healing.

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