The Long And Short Term Effects Of Self-Punishing Behavior

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The act of self-punishment can be difficult to define, as it can encompass a variety of behaviors. While a person can choose to engage in self-punishing behavior, it's possible to punish yourself at times without even realizing you are doing so. 

Self-punishment can come in many forms that may do more harm than good. In this article, we will explore what self-punishment can look like, as well as replacement coping mechanisms you can learn and implement in place of these behaviors. 

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Feeling overwhelmed by guilt?

What does self-punishment look like?

Self-punishment for most begins with negative self-talk. Renowned German philosopher Fredrich Nietzche was quoted saying: “You yourself will always be the worst enemy you can encounter; you yourself lie in wait for yourself in caves and forests.” You may have heard this similarly phrased along the lines of, ‘you are your own worst critic’. 

Negative self-talk can revolve heavily around self-criticism. Someone who continually tells themself they are not good enough in regard to career, intelligence, physical appearance or talent, is generally engaging in a form of self-punishment.

Additionally, overuse of self-deprecating humor could be considered a form of self-punishment. While some studies say self-deprecating humor can be a sign of emotional intelligence, and might physiological well-being, internally belittling and undervaluing yourself can be detrimental to your overall mental health.

Self-punishment may also come in the form of withholding rewards. For example, if you feel you have not accomplished enough in your day, you may tell yourself it is not okay to play a video game you enjoy. While this form of self-punishment can serve as a motivator in certain situations, it can often become unhealthy or dangerous as well. 

Withholding basic needs from yourself such as rest, food or sleep can have detrimental effects to one’s mental and physical health. Additionally, self-punishment in this form may be a symptom of other mental conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and certain eating disorders. 

Self-punishment in the form of withholding food, sleep or other basic necessities from yourself might be considered an act of self-harm. Other forms of self-harm or self-injury can consist of burning, scratching, cutting or wounding oneself in any way. 

We want to note that the behaviors listed above are generally never healthy practices—but they can be abated by ongoing therapeutic intervention and support. 

It’s interesting to note that there is a phenomenon called moral masochism where someone seeks some form of punishment to “atone” for perceived transgressions. In general, this is rarely a healthy way to make amends if one feels guilty.

The dangers of self-harm

Self-punishment in the form of physical self-harm is always dangerous. Psychologists studying “non-suicidal self-injury” suggest that this behavior stems from highly negative self-image and self-worth in most.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7.

If you have or have had thoughts of self-harm or self-injury, you are not alone. In cases like this, it can be helpful to reach out to a therapist or mental health professional when possible. 

If you are considering acting on thoughts of self-harm, we encourage you to reach out for help immediately.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7.

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Why do we punish ourselves?

Many experts believe that the most common reasons for self-punishment are low self-esteem and poor self-image. A lack of self-esteem can result in a lack of motivation and feelings of being “undeserving” of a better experience for yourself.

These two root causes can stem from a combination of things. Outside influences and cultural pressure can play a large role, as can our social relationships. For example: Adults who previously lacked security in relationships with their parents or caregivers may struggle with low self-esteem. Additionally, people who are bullied, feel like an outcast, or are highly influenced by negative media input can experience feelings of poor self-image or low self-esteem that could lead to excessive self-punishment.

We do want to note: Feelings of guilt and shame can also result in the usage of self-punishing behaviors to try to feel a sense of relief. Feelings of guilt can be the result of many things, including hurting a loved one’s feelings, not accomplishing what you feel you should have, indulging in feelings of regret and many others. 

Can it be used to improve?

In some cases, certain forms of “self-punishment” can be used as a motivator toward personal growth. For example: You may want to reward yourself with an item or experience after achieving a goal, withholding the reward from yourself until you have achieved what you set out to do.

In this regard, withholding reward can be a helpful motivator, but it may be helpful to reframe this tool in a more positive light, as considering this behavior “punishment” may have adverse effects in some. 

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Feeling overwhelmed by guilt?

Replacing self-punishment with self-compassion

If you notice you have a pattern of engaging in self-punishing behavior, the path to healing may begin by replacing self-punishment with self-compassion. This can be easier said than done, especially if you have an ongoing history of engaging in self-punishment. 

Still, there are a number of ways one can reframe negative thoughts or compulsions with understanding and compassionate ones. For instance, it may be helpful to make a conscious effort to respond to your personal negative thoughts or feelings with the same love and compassion you would show to a friend. It can be quite common for people to treat themselves more harshly than they would their loved ones or peers. When feelings of guilt or insecurity arise, it may be helpful to think of what you would say to a friend or loved one who has expressed these types of troublesome feelings to you. 

Allowing yourself rest and relaxation can be another healthy form of self-compassion. Positive affirmations and guided meditation may help as well.  Many may also find relief after they connect with a licensed therapist or mental health professional, as they can be helpful guides in the journey of healing and the practice of self-compassion. 

How can online therapy support those with this experience?

If you are having trouble overcoming the negative effects of self-punishment, it can be helpful to speak with a therapist. Excessive self-punishment can be extremely damaging to both mental and physical health—and can potentially intimidate people from seeking help in-person.  That’s why online therapy can be such a helpful resource: being able to attend sessions from one’s home may be a more accessible option than typical in-person therapy.

Is online therapy effective?

According to research, online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been suggested   to be equally as effective as in-person therapy, generally reducing the symptoms of certain mental health conditions—such as depression, anxiety disorders and bipolar disorder, and may help people better cope with comorbidities like chronic pain. 

Takeaway

Excessive self-punishing behaviors including negative self-talk, withholding reward, and self-harm can all be incredibly damaging to one’s mental and physical health. The practice of self-compassion can be essential to healing and is generally best implemented with the help of a licensed therapist or counselor. BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist in your area of need.
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