Can Self-Punishment Be A Tool For Improvement?

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When we're younger, we learn that punishment is the consequence we receive when we don't do something that we should or shouldn't do. These punishments will typically grow in severity as you get older, eventually becoming something that is handed down by authoritative entities such as employers or governments. Some people, though, may implement their own punishments as a way to motivate themselves or to work through certain issues. But is self-punishment healthy?

Have You Been Over Using Self-Punishment As A Tool?

The truth is not so cut and dry when it comes to self-punishment. Self-punishment can encompass a wide range of behavior that may be as simple as skipping movie night because you failed to do your work for the day to something as harmful as causing physical harm to yourself for doing or feeling a certain way. While some behavior may be fine and drive you forward, other behaviors can have a detrimental effect on your physical and mental health. We will talk more about what is acceptable and what is not as we go through this article.

To be perfectly clear, any type of self-harm in which physical pain is inflicted is not something that you should pursue as a means to improve yourself or punish certain behaviors. In fact, self-harm is often utilized as a coping mechanism for various mental illnesses and needs to be treated so that you don't put your body at risk. Self-harm is complex, but it is highly treatable. Know that help is out there as you navigate your way through this article and learn more about what self-punishment is and what place it should have in your life.

What Is Self-Punishment?

At its most basic, self-punishment is the act of inflicting punishment on yourself by your own choice. No one tells you to do it. The act of punishing oneself has a long history. Perhaps you've heard of self-flagellation, which is the act of flogging oneself and was often done in public in the past.

Self-punishment can be performed as either a physical or mental activity. For instance, you can punish yourself physically by skipping a meal, or you can punish yourself mentally by continuing to feel guilty about a past action. How and why you punish yourself can be either harmful or beneficial to you in the long run.

Why Some People Gravitate Toward Self-Punishment

There is a misconception that only people who are mentally unwell punish themselves. But if you look at it closer, you likely already understand that's not true. We punish ourselves all the time. How often do we tell someone, "Don't beat yourself up over it?" We say that because we can see that they are mentally punishing themselves.

Self-punishment is a fairly common reaction to guilt. If we don't do well on a test, don't come through for our co-workers or clients, or fail to meet a personal goal, we may find ways to punish ourselves. In fact, guilt seems to be the primary driving force behind many people's decisions to self-punish.

Sometimes, we want to feel better about our internal guilt, but other times, we may self-punish in front of others so that they will recognize our guilt. Guilt, too, is often played out when we feel like we've wronged someone else. Interestingly, it can also be used to manipulate another person into thinking we have a guilty conscious when, in fact, we want to get out of external punishment. We'll talk more about that later. For now, just understand that self-punishment can come from a positive place when you want to motivate yourself to improve or feel better, or it can come from a negative place when you want to take advantage of or trick another person.

Although we all participate in self-punishment to some extent, it is true that some people are more prone to engaging in self-punishment than others. The really interesting thing is what types of people are most likely to self-punish. It tends to be individuals who are highly sensitive to the perceptions of others. That is, they worry about what others think of them or what their reputation or standing is in their communities. People who tend to take responsibility for their actions or are more likely to blame themselves than others are also amongst those who are more likely to punish themselves. Conversely, if a person doesn’t experience the above, then they might not feel the need for frequent punishment.

Do You Punish Yourself Without Realizing It?

Mental punishments can often be carried out without you realizing that you are punishing yourself. This is called unconscious self-punishment. People who engage in unconscious self-punishment often make their lives more difficult than they need to. They take the hard way when an easier route to their goals is available.

Another word for this type of behavior is self-sabotage, which is not the type of self-punishment that can be beneficial to you. Self-punishment is most helpful when it is a behavior you are engaging in consciously and with a purpose.

Some argue that unconscious self-punishment is a way to evade guilt rather than dealing with it.

When Self-Punishment Is a Problem

In some cases, self-punishment can be a tool for forgiveness or improvement. Other times, however, it can diminish your self-esteem and confidence, especially if it's done too often or too publicly. Self-punishment as a means to seek forgiveness is supposed to help us connect further with our communities and to show that we intend to act with consideration for others. But obsessively punishing ourselves often has the opposite effect, making us feel like we are unworthy and further distancing us from our communities.

Punishment against ourselves works in similar ways to external punishments. If you know ahead of time that there is a specific negative consequence to your actions, then a predetermined punishment can be helpful in making the right decisions. But if you are punished or punish yourself without any previous awareness of what punishment would come or what would cause the punishment, then you can't use it for motivation to make better choices.

Self-Punishment Disorder

We tend to believe the things we are told about ourselves. That's why negative self-talk is so insidious. You're always with yourself. That means you can't escape the bad things you say about yourself unless you consciously decide to change your behavior and perspective.

People with self-punishment disorder have a mindset in which they believe that they deserve punishment. They have convinced themselves that they are unworthy of love, happiness, or success. If your punishment behaviors are compulsive and frequent and are not planned out to generate a particularly successful outcome, then you may need to seek help from a professional therapist for a self-punishment disorder. Several mental illnesses are associated with chronic self-punishment, including anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you are engaging in behaviors that physically damage your body, then you are performing self-injury behaviors. These are unhealthy behaviors that often become habits and may include:

  • Burning the skin
  • Cutting the skin
  • Seeking excessive body modifications
  • Pulling hair
  • Hitting yourself with objects
  • Breaking bones
  • Picking at skin
  • Reopening wounds
  • Banging the head

You may also notice other self-injury habits aside from the ones listed here, none of which should ever be considered as a punishment.

Self-Punishment and Religion

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, self-inflicted injuries and punishments have been part of religion for a long time. Many different religions include self-punishment rituals. These are often carried out to relieve the guilt of sinful acts, prove one’s faith, or in some cases of Christian rituals, to feel closer to Christ's suffering. 

Self-Punishment to Manipulate Others

Another destructive form of self-punishment is when you try to manipulate the behavior of others by harming yourself. This can entail physically or mentally abusive behaviors used to get attention. Any of the physically harmful behaviors in the list above may be used as manipulation tactics, and these are unhealthy ways to cope with relationships. In addition to physical harm, manipulation tactics may present as putting yourself down in front of others.

Have You Been Over Using Self-Punishment As A Tool?

An example of manipulative self-punishment might be refusing to eat food for several days because your partner hasn't been paying enough attention to you. You try to force them to give you the attention or reaction you want by making them feel bad, guilty, or worried about you. The problem with this method of maintaining relationships is that the other person will eventually grow weary of this behavior and may begin to care less for you or may become immune to your dramatic pleas.

It's also important to note that if someone in your life seems to be harming themselves for attention, they likely have a mental health issue that requires treatment from a professional. You should try to help them seek treatment. This kind of manipulative behavior is often a plea for help from someone who has no other coping mechanism. However, this doesn't mean that you have to give in to their manipulation just because they can intentionally use it against you.

How to Stop Dangerous Behaviors

Dangerous self-punishment can help people regulate their emotions. That's why it's often seen in individuals with mental health issues. They are trying to self-medicate with pain. When self-punishment becomes harmful rather than helpful, here are some things you can do to stop the behaviors.

  • Channel your urge to harm your body into adorning your body. Use markers or pens to draw on your skin rather than cutting it or picking at it, paint your nails, or do something different with your hair.
  • Surround yourself with other people. This may mean simply leaving your bedroom to join your family, or it could mean leaving the house to go to a park, library, or coffee shop.
  • Keep your hands busy. When you start thinking about harming yourself, have a hobby or activity ready that you need to use your hands for.
  • Distract yourself. There are all kinds of ways to do this. Keep your schedule busy with work, studying, or hobbies so that you don't have time to sit and hurt yourself.
  • Try loving-kindness meditation. Sending feelings of love and gratitude to yourself and your body helps you to remember that you are a person too.
  • Remind yourself of the consequences of your actions. Hurting your body can leave you with scars.

Another good tool is to pay attention to your self-harm patterns. Do you injure yourself at certain times of the day or after certain events? Maybe specific emotions bring on the urge to harm yourself. Identifying your triggers can help you learn to recognize signs before you harm yourself and can help you learn to stop. You should also understand that self-injury can become addictive, so don't be too hard on yourself if it takes a while for you to change the behavior.

Are My Self-Punishment Methods Helpful or Harmful?

As we discussed above, there is a fine line between helpful self-punishment and detrimental behavior that requires the help of a specialist. To determine whether you need help, you first need to figure out if your punishments are dangerous to you and are preventing you from moving forward with your life. To better guide you, here are some tips that will help you recognize and attempt to stop the behavior on your own.

  1. Ask Yourself What Your Punishments Accomplish. There is a major difference between not reading a book to get work done and harming yourself. What do your punishments accomplish? Are they put in place as a way to prevent bad behaviors from coming into your life, or are they solely there as a way to physically or mentally put you down when you engage in something you see as negative? Mental or physical harm is never the answer.
  2. Learn More About What Could Fall Into the Self-Harm Spectrum. Most individuals who self-harm are well aware of their behavior, but some may not be as aware of their self-harm behaviors. This is especially true when the behavior doesn't qualify as self-injury but still is harmful to the self, such as choosing to think negative thoughts every time you do something wrong or starving because you ate too much at lunchtime. Before you can seek treatment, it is important that you know as much as possible about your behavior and where it comes from.
  3. Find Ways to Distract Yourself. Distraction is not the same as a treatment, but it is necessary to prevent you from engaging in dangerous behavior. Look to the internet for various distraction methods that will help you avoid these behaviors and turn your attention to other areas of your life until you are able to increase your willpower and avoid your usual punishment.

Self-discipline vs. Self-punishment

Self-discipline is the ability to regulate one's behavior. For instance, if you drive below the speed limit when you see a traffic camera but exceed the speed limit when no cameras or police are around, then you are reacting to external punishment. You are disciplined, but only when your behavior is being monitored by someone else. That is not self-discipline.

Self-discipline, on the other hand, is getting up early to take care of chores every day before work. No one makes you do this, but you hold yourself accountable for it. Some people seem to be better at holding themselves accountable without external forces than others.

You may, however, be able to use self-punishment to develop self-discipline. If you want to get chores done before work so that you can reward yourself with free time in the evening, you may still feel like sleeping in and not getting around to the chores in the morning. So, you can further entice yourself to do what needs to be done by enforcing a punishment, such as not being able to play video games in the evening if you didn't do the chores in the morning.

An accountability partner is someone who is aware of the consequences you set for yourself and can help you to maintain your punishments when you break your own rules.

Self-Discipline Ideas And Techniques

Give Money Away. Money is an often-sought reward, but what about using money as a punishment? If you agree to give a person or a charity some of your money if you fail to meet a goal or you break a rule you make for yourself, you may be much more motivated to both meet the goal and keep your cash.

Want an even more effective strategy? Researchers found that individuals who agreed to donate money to a charity they were against if they broke their contract with themselves had even higher success rates. After all, who wants to give money to a cause they disagree with?

Make a Bet. Alternatively, if you have a task that needs to be completed on deadline, you can make what is called a commitment device, which basically entails making a bet that you will succeed. Suppose you give a friend $100. If you finish your task on time, let's say at 5 p.m. tomorrow, then you get your $100 back. If, however, you don't complete the task on time, your friend keeps the money.

Deny Yourself Something You Want. We do this with kids, so why not ourselves? The next time you don't follow your own rules, take away your time for activities like the internet, movies, video games, or even dessert.

But Don't Forget the Reward. Although it's true that punishments can be highly motivational, they actually work best when balanced with rewards. So, here's a good strategy for the next time you need to meet a goal or change a habit. For every negative step you take, like missing a task or milestone, give yourself a punishment. For every positive step, like meeting a goal schedule, completing a task, or making the right choice, reward yourself.

See a Therapist. Counseling, whether in-person or online, is a must when it comes to dealing with self-injury or negative self-talk as it helps you to work through the underlying problems that contribute to the desire to engage in these behaviors. A therapist can teach you techniques for how to manage negative self-talk and self-injury in a supportive, nonjudgmental environment.

If you’re considering online therapy, BetterHelp is an online counseling platform with a large selection of certified therapists and the ability to conduct therapy sessions online, over the phone, or even via email. This makes it so that you never have to worry about leaving your house or rearranging your schedule again. Just get online, select the counselor who works best for you, and start your healing process from the comfort of your own home and on your own schedule. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Rickie is very good at understanding what you are trying to convey and provides constructive ways in which to change your thoughts and behaviors. She is kind and supportive in her communications. She likes to get you to figure out why you are doing certain behaviors so that you can change any negative behaviors."

"Amy is a rock in my life. We've been doing sessions for over a year now, and she is so supportive and caring, but also practical, and she has helped me to breakthroughs, through tough times and finding ways that work for me to help me be a better version of me. I would definitely recommend her to anyone needing help. I am far from perfect, but with her, I am one step closer to being who I want to be."

Conclusion

While some self-punishment methods can be helpful in preventing certain behaviors and allowing you to rewire yourself, others can be harmful and have a negative impact on your mental and physical health. With the right tools, you can change harmful behaviors and move on to a better tomorrow. Take the first step today.

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