Punishing Misbehavior as a Pretext for Sadistic Impulses

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When people have unwanted thoughts and impulses that feel unacceptable, the psychological solution is to repress them, banishing them from conscious awareness. But these thoughts and impulses don’t go away, they are just buried. They still exert a profound influence on behavior. In order to express these tabu impulses, which are like an itch that needs to be scratched, resort to rationalizations; they look for some culturally approved or personally acceptable pretext where they can satisfy these impulses without the accompanying psychological torment.

Probably one of the most taboo impulses is to cause another human being pain and suffering, which is why sadistic thoughts and feelings are almost always repressed and the corresponding behaviors rationalized. Few people would admit to being cruel, but of course many people are. One of the ways this cruelty manifests itself is through punishing misbehavior.

When we say punishing misbehavior as a pretext for sadistic impulses, what we mean is that sadistic energies are channeled in a way that feels justified to the person doing the punishing, who says and thinks things like “this is for your own good,” “You had it coming,” “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” “You knew what the rules and consequences were.”

The reason this setup works so well for the ‘unconscious’ sadist is that responsibility for the act of punishment is transferred entirely onto the person being punished, whose actions are apparently the impetus for it. In this way cruelty, causing emotional, psychological, or physical pain are twisted into something that feels more acceptable, like the feeling that justice is being served. All sadists want to cause pain and humiliation, the difference is that those not consciously aware of their impulses need to justify what they are doing on some other grounds. Punishing misbehavior provides the ideal pretext. This is not to say that all people who have used punishments are sadists, just that all sadists use punishments, and that those who are consciously aware of it use punishing misbehavior as a pretext for sadistic impulses.