The Cycle of Crime and Punishment in Psychotherapy

I’m sure my fellow psychotherapists have had this same experience:  a client comes into session after having done or said something that they previously vowed not to do, or which they feel somehow damages them; they are burdened with horrible guilt.  Maybe she was trying hard not to use drugs and slipped the night before, or maybe he slept with his old girlfriend even though he knows she’s bad for him.  It could be something as simple as going off a diet.  During session, they go on about how guilty they feel and spend a lot of time berating themselves in a punitive way.  As therapists, we may try to help them understand the reasons for their behavior, or make a connection to some emotional stress that played a role.  We may feel compassion for their suffering, bringing real insight to their psychological and emotional motivations.  Several weeks later, they repeat the same behavior and return to session in the same guilty and self-punitive mindset, as if the previous session had never taken place.

My own therapist referred to this as “the cycle of crime and punishment.”  I find it a very useful concept that helps to explain why some clients don’t benefit from insight and understanding.  It’s as if they view their backsliding as a crime that must be severely punished in a self-flagellating way; once they have undergone said punishment, however, they feel that they’ve expunged all guilt for their crime and regard the subject as closed, in the past.  It is exactly analogous to our penal system, which inflicts punishment on those who commit crimes but regards them as completely free once they have paid their debt to society. The psychological cycle of crime and punishment prevents people from learning from their experience and condemns them to repeat the past, just as the over-emphasis on retribution (as opposed to rehabilitation) in our penal system does little to help incarcerated criminals avoid returning to a life of crime after their release.

Such clients are trapped in their cycle of crime and punishment because they don’t know how to learn from their experience.  They usually come from extremely impoverished backgrounds.  You might think the parents would have been harsh and perfectionistic, and sometimes this is the case; often it’s simply that they have few psychological resources and little to pass along in the way of wisdom or emotional capacity.  They generally model primitive reactions to turmoil — rage, denial, projection, etc. — and the emotional environment feels dangerously confusing to their children.  For some people who come from such families, a harsh, exacting conscience pulls them out of the chaos, painting some very black-and-white lines in order to alleviate the confusion about what’s good and what’s bad in their world.  Sometimes they can be sharply moralistic because it is their “morality” that saves them from the mess of their childhood.

While this kind of morality has its emotional survival value, people burdened with it lack the genuine capacity to bear with and understand their own experience.  They only know how to condemn it, keeping it under lock and key.  Eventually, under extreme pressure, the forbidden impulse slips out:  crime inevitably leads to punishment.  I think you can see how Catholicism might complicate this picture.  With its system of sins and penance, that religion leaves little room for an understanding of the emotional factors that might lead people to “sin” and simply specifies the means to atone for those sins, regarded as inevitable.

In working with such clients, it’s crucial to help them see and understand this dynamic.  They need to see how they allow themselves only two options:  complete success or utter failure.  No gray areas, no step-by-step growth.  That’s actually the easier part.  Then the work must help them to develop the capacity to learn from experience.  As that’s a rather large subject in itself, I’ll save it for another post.

Finding Your Own Way:

Are you the sort of person who beats yourself up when you make a mistake or slip in some way?  Do you find yourself getting extremely angry with yourself for things you do but then committing the same “crimes” again and again?  Examine your system of personal expectations.  You might find that your particular standards reflect very little understanding of the psychological and emotional reasons for doing what you do.  You probably expect yourself simply to “be different” or “stop behaving that way.”  Even if you do have some insight and understanding, you may have no idea how to make use of it; you may simply expect that insight = change and you’re a failure if it doesn’t.

As I’ve discussed in my piece on self-criticism, this kind of conscience reflects an expectation that one shouldn’t have to struggle in order to learn and grow.  To break free of this cycle, you’ll need (for starters) to confront your unrealistic expectations and come to terms with the difficulty of genuine growth. While it’s painful to suffer from this kind of self-punishment, it’s also extremely difficult to take small steps, to recognize and value little changes along the way.  It may take years to grow the kind of emotional capacity you need, possibly in therapy.  Instead, you may simply insist that you “get over” your problem rather than growing slowly and imperfectly over time.

Think again about the penal system analogy.  It’s not enough to do your time; you have to develop some new skills in there or you’ll simply repeat the same crimes once you’ve paid off your debt to society.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. This has been my exact experience, both whilst in therapy, and since leaving 5 years ago. For a long time, it was difficult and I became frustrated and angry with myself for ‘not getting it right’ – ie being 100% perfect all of the time; even my therapist had ‘taught’ me that it was okay to ‘fall off the wagon’ but what was most important was ‘dusting myself off and getting back’ on as soon as possible.

    At times I still ‘fall off the wagon’ but to a much lesser degree and with much less frequency. What I notice now is that mostly I am able to ‘catch myself’ before I ‘fall off’.

    1. A nicely realistic description of what actual change looks like — imperfect but gradual improvement over a long period of time. Thanks.

  2. Could you explain some of the factors that lead to committing these crimes? Why is it that someone truly, deeply believes in X emotionally and intellectually, yet constantly does the complete opposite of X? If that is too general, maybe you could take as an example very unhealthy people who are in acute danger of becoming chronically ill or even dying. They understand that they need to work out and eat better, they want to work out/eat better and they plan to work out/eat better, yet they never actually do it. What psychological reasons could explain their behavior?

    1. I’m going to write about this issue in my post tomorrow. It has to do with the place I finished in this post, about what it means to learn from experience.

  3. This is extremely interesting to me, as someone who has gone through the cycle many times. It reminds me exactly of my catholic upbringing and the useless cycle of confession and penance which does little to encourage growth, instead just reinforcing the cycle.

  4. So no wealthy and influential people are involved in this cycle too just impoverished? Or is it that they, the wealthy, with far more influence and effect on other humans, don’t feel they need to be fixed.

    Jails punish people. They are not tasked with fixing them. That’s your job. So recently released convicts should come to you with no specifics on the government dime? I’m very confused. The less specifics the more likely a scam . Your whole blog seems to be selling open ended expensive therapy with no accountability.

    1. It is true that jail does punish people Ty; yet, to my knowledge there are programs to assist in “fixing” people. I also understand that that there are extremely limited financial and human resources for released convicts needing or wanting psychological and psychiatric services. From my experience though, I am the one that is accountable for “fixing” me and although it may take longer without those supports (and maybe not), I have always found a way to address my issues as I am responsible for me. You are accountable for, and to, you.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *