Can Self Punishment Be A Bad Thing?

Updated June 22, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While anger, sadness, and other difficult emotions are all part of life, not everyone is capable of coping with them in a healthy way. Some people find that they feel the need to lash out at family members or friends when faced with these issues. On the other hand, it’s also common for people to turn their attention inward, or engage in self-punishment. When they don’t feel good or feel as though they don’t deserve happiness, some people engage in self-punishment.

Self-punishment is typically a coping mechanism that allows individuals to feel like they’re in control of their lives or to exercise physical control that reduces the effects of their emotional pain. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, some people choose to punish themselves to reduce their feelings of guilt. These types of punishments can come in many forms, including both emotional and physical punishment. In this article, we’ll look at some of the reasons why people self-punish along with some of the common types of self-punishment.

What Is Self-Punishment?

Have You Been Beating Yourself Up Lately?

Punishment can be defined as “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.” At some point in our lives, everyone has experienced punishment (and the threat of punishment), so we’re all familiar with the concept. From infancy and early childhood, our parents (or guardians) serve as both rule makers and rule enforcers. During this stage of our lives, we’re usually punished with timeouts or the loss of favorite toys when we break the rules.

Once preadolescence and adolescence come around, the school system provides us with our first truly meaningful experiences with punishment from society. School provides a formal set of rules that should not be broken and also outlines a formal set of punishments that fit the intensity of the misconduct. Punishments range from detentions and suspensions to full-blown expulsions for the worst offenses. In addition, parents generally continue to punish wrongdoings at this age as well, but being grounded takes the place of a timeout and electronic devices are the toys that you lose when you break the rules.

The threat of punishment for breaking civic regulations and laws truly comes into effect during adolescence and early adulthood. Punishments at this level could mean community service, jail or prison time, mandatory rehabilitation programs, and hefty fines. Adults know full well what could happen if they find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Ultimately, in one form or another, we have to live with the threat of punishment from birth and until death. However, punishments are not fundamentally negative. They help to shape our perception about the correct ways to interact with society and the world at large. To some degree, they’re one of the primary gears that keep the wheels of civilization turning. Without consequences, our society would be in shambles. People would take advantage of others, and they would like still have violent tendencies, as they did in the early 1,000’s. The truth is consequences are a vital component of social psychology.

But what about self-punishment? Shouldn’t self-punishment be positive as well? One could argue that each of us understands our own thoughts and actions best. In that case, shouldn’t self-punishment be extremely effective? Shouldn’t punishing yourself for your wrongdoings make you a better person? Read on to learn why that’s not necessarily true according to social psychology.

Why Do People Have Feelings of Guilt?

Have you ever done something wrong and then felt guilt for hours, or even days later? Have feelings of moral failure and shame are common amongst people. You have likely heard the term “guilty conscience.” This term refers to people with shame proneness and who feel guilty if they do the simplest thing wrong. In social psychology, guilt is a learned behavior, as you know you did something wrong and feel bad about it. But, some people feel worse than others after doing something wrong. These are the concepts of personality and social psychology.

Personality and social psychology have a large impact on the level of guilt you feel after doing something wrong. As mentioned above, your personality can dictate how bad you feel after a wrongdoing. However, social psychology shows that the culture you are in also has a large impact on your guilt levels. So, for example, if you are in a culture that is very consequence-heavy, you may feel more guilty after doing something wrong than someone in a freedom-based culture. Despite this, many people struggle after performing a moral transgression, due to many factors in psychological science.

When most people feel guilty, they will either apologize, correct their wrongs, or both. However, when you start getting the urge to punish yourself to feel good about the situation, this is unhealthy. Perhaps you think you are cleansing the soul after doing something wrong and are trying to engage in guilt reducing methods. Although you should correct your wrongdoings if you desire to, this should not be done through self-punishment.

Forms of Self-Punishment

Self-punishment can either be a mental or a physical act. Mental punishments can manifest as feelings of prolonged guilt over past experiences or actions. A prime example is survivor’s guilt or any situation where someone takes on an unreasonable level of guilt for actions beyond their control. Or, they talk down to themselves because they did something wrong and tell themselves that they are a bad person.

Physical punishments can range from simply skipping a meal to more direct and severe actions, such as cutting yourself, burning yourself, pulling out hair, or hitting yourself with the intention of feeling pain. As you can see, the physical side of self-punishment overlaps with forms of self-injury.

Why Do We Punish Ourselves?

As you might guess, self-punishment is not a useful tactic because it doesn’t solve any problems. Instead, it serves as a means of continuously making you feel dejected, depressed, and isolated. A study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information confirms this view by providing insights into the nature and functions of self-injury. Specifically, the study highlighted the prevalence of non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) and the seemingly contradictory nature of this practice with the basic human instinct for survival.

By indulging in self-punishment, we condition ourselves to become used to attacking ourselves, which results in a kind of twisted codependence or even an addiction. However, it’s important to realize that indulging in self-punishment can go far beyond a simple addiction or co-dependence. Often, there is a more sinister level to it because the person feels the need for the negative feelings and harbors the deep-seated beliefs that retribution is necessary. This rationale contributes to some of the main reasons why some individuals develop self-punishing tendencies.

What is self-punishment called?

What you call self-punishment depends on when someone might engage in self-punishment. Some people engage in symptoms from eating disorders, such as binging or purging. Others will engage in external punishment and self harm behaviors that cause physical pain. On the other hand, not every form of self-punishment is physical. Sometimes, people engage in symptoms of personality disorders. This could be depressive behaviors, isolation, or severely lashing out on others. No matter how they engage in self-punishment, the behaviors are not healthy. Feelings of guilt need to be processed healthily. If this is not possible along, it is important to find a therapist.

Is it okay to punish yourself?

When people punish themselves due to feelings of guilt, it is not a positive way of coping. Punishing yourself, especially physically, is not a good way to heal. When someone has the urge to punish themselves, it is because they are trying to diminish their feelings of guilt. If you want to punish yourself or have shame proneness, it is important to find a therapist. When you find a therapist, who can help you find effective methods of decreasing your feelings of guilt. Then, the guilt reducing effect of healthy coping mechanisms will increase.

How do you punish yourself without studying?

Many college students feel as though they need to study to punish themselves for bad grades. The feelings of guilt after receiving a bad test grade can make you want to study nonstop to ensure you never get a bad grade again. However, for some people, they don’t study to punish themselves. Instead, they punish themselves in other ways. No matter how you punish yourself, you likely do it to feel good again about yourself of your grades. These guilt reducing behaviors, however, won’t make you feel better over the long run for making the bad grade.

When you feel the urge to punish yourself, the best thing to do is relax, take a breather, drink some ice water, and then just study harder next time. Also, even though you are trying to achieve a high grade in a particular class, it’s not the end all be all. There is always a new year you can try to boost your GPA when you are in a better mindset.

Why is studying so hard?

Studying can be incredibly difficult if you are not interested in the subject you are learning. Many college students struggle with taking their general education courses before they take their major’s prerequisites for this reason. And, the truth is, no matter how interested in a course you may be, sitting down to study for a few hours just isn’t fun.

If you struggle to study, don’t be so hard on yourself. The best thing to do is be present in class and take thorough notes so you don’t have to study as hard before a test. Also, studying your notes after class for a few minutes may help increase your test grade. This way, you won’t have to cram the night before a big test. If studying starts to take a toll on your overall happiness, don’t hesitate to find a therapist. When you find a therapist who specializes in young adults, they will help you figure out ways to cope with the stress of studying and college.

Why can’t I study at all?

You may struggle to study because you are unmotivated. Motivation plays are large role in the ability to study, especially when studying subjects you aren’t interested in. You also may have a difficult time focusing if you are dealing with a mental illness. Mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, or depression, are oftentimes heightened in college. Heightened mental illnesses can make it extremely difficult to focus on your studies. So, whether it’s a lack of motivation or a heightened mental illness, this could be why you can’t seem to sit down and focus.

How do I motivate myself to study?

One way to motivate yourself to study is to know why you’re studying. Perhaps it is to be in the top 10 percent of your class. Maybe it’s to get into your dream school. Or, maybe it’s to get a great job after college. No matter what it is, keep your eye on the prize when studying. If you need a short term goal, tell yourself you can watch an hour of Netflix if you get three hours of studying done. Or, you can hang out with friends over the weekend if you get a great test grade. These motivations will likely help when you are struggling to focus.

Another way to motivate yourself to study is to take multiple breaks. It’s very difficult to stay focused on one thing for long periods of time. It may seem counter-intuitive to take breaks when you have a significant amount of work to do, but your productivity will show it’s worth it. So, when studying, set a timer every 30 minutes to remind yourself to take a 10-minute break. You can do whatever you want during these 10 minutes as long as it gives your brain a break. The best thing to do may be to just sit and take in the scenery around you. Or, you can go for a nice walk. What is best will depend on your preferences, so try out several different methods.

How do I stop punishing myself for past mistakes?

One way to stop punishing yourself is to take a deep breath and relax. For example, get a glass of ice water. Then, take your ice water and bring it to your warm bath. Sit in the bathtub for as long as you need for you to feel relaxed, and for the self-punishing urges to subside. This may sound easy, but when you can push through these urges, they will subside eventually.

To keep these urges away and overcome self doubt, it is vital that you find a therapist. The urge to punish yourself mentally or physically is an abnormal thought process. When you find a therapist, they will help you get to the root of these urges and help you create new thought processes. They will also give you tips on how to cope with these urges healthily, based on your individual needs.

Why do I like to punish myself?

Punishing yourself may be linked to a low self-esteem. When you feel down about yourself, you may feel that you deserve the punishment of physical pain. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, self-esteem has a large impact on how you treat yourself and your relationships. In the study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they tested a control group for their self-esteem and the support group they have in their lives. Those with a great support group tended to have a higher self-esteem. With that being said, a support group can boost your self-esteem greatly if you have urges to punish yourself.

What is self-inflicted pain?

Self-inflicted pain is any pain you intentionally put yourself under. Hurting yourself on purpose is called self harm. Many people practice self harm pain because they feel guilty, depressed, anxious, or are dealing with bipolar disorder. Perhaps it just starts as an experimental condition, but you find that it has a cleansing feeling. So, you keep doing it to feel better. The truth is, this is not a healthy coping mechanism and you don’t deserve the pain you inflict upon yourself. The effect of pain can be severe, so it is important that you find a therapist to help you. Self-inflicted pain is incredibly dangerous, and it should be resolved.

If you are thinking about suicide or if you are thinking about harming yourself, or others or if you have any medical emergency, you must immediately call the emergency service number (911 in the US and 999 in the UK) and notify the relevant authorities. Seek immediate in person assistance.

What is another word for masochist?

A masochist is someone who gets pleasure from physical pain or punishment. Another term that may be used instead of masochist is someone who enjoys flagellation. However, sometimes someone who gets pleasure from pain may not get sexual pleasure, which is what flagellation suggests. Some people get pleasure from pain because they feel a weight lifted off their shoulders. This is usually what happens when people engage in self-punishment behaviors. Masochism isn’t just physical. Seeking verbal abuse is another form of masochistic punishment.

Seeking emotional or physical pain is known as moral masochism, and masochism and depression are often seen together.

How do you punish someone physically?

Punishing someone physically is not a great idea. When people resort to aggression, physical punishment can leave mental and physical scars that stick around forever. This can leave them with damage that will stick with them for decades. Rather than physical punishment, try to talk things out with them and explain how you feel. Tell them that you are upset with their actions. If the mistake they made makes you want to hurt them physically, wait a while until you see them again. This way, you won’t do anything you regret later. Because then, you will be the one who has to suffer from consequences.

What causes self-punishment?

There are many different causes of self-punishment. For one, someone who suffered from toxic levels of strict parenting may feel the urge to punish themselves later on in life. This is because all they knew was negative consequences growing up. They felt guilty for their actions and thoughts. For other people, they may have severe anxiety levels or are depressed, so they turn to self-punishment as a coping mechanism. Consequences are important, but self-punishment is an unhealthy behavior that must be unlearned. Through therapy and hard work on yourself, you can unlearn these toxic behaviors.

Why do I attack myself?

People mentally and physically attack themselves for many reasons. If they have experienced harsh punishments before as a child, this is a common reason people turn to attacking themselves in adulthood. Many other people suffer from mental illnesses that make them feel like they need to attack themselves. This could be negative self-talk, or it could be physical harm to themselves. All in all, attacking yourself comes down to your mental health and how you feel about yourself. For someone with a high self-esteem, attacking themselves in unquestionable and sounds impossible. However, for someone with a low self-esteem, a sense of shame, and poor mental health, attacking themselves may sound like a considerable option.

Why do I punish myself by overeating?

Overeating is a very common way people punish themselves. Food can make you feel better, but then once you eat too much, it can cause pain. For people who feel the urge to self-punish, this pain can be the goal. The reason behind this is the same for self-punishment. A person wants to eliminate their feelings of guilt, so they turn to punishing themselves, hoping to relieve their feelings. There is also guilt eating, which is where someone eats because they feel guilty about something. This is another common form of coping with guilt, and it can cause serious harm.

How do I forgive my past self?

Forgiving yourself is very important for moving on from a situation. You may struggle with accepting that you did something wrong. Perhaps you stole something, or you told a friend’s secret. No matter what you did, working on forgiving yourself and overcoming the shame you are experiencing is an important step to learning. When you hold onto something for long, you eventually will be so caught up in the guilt and shame that you won’t focus on the lesson learned. So, taking the road down self-forgiveness will be one of the best ways to learn and heal.

To forgive your past self, try to understand why you did it. Was it an accident? Was it because you were confused? Then, try to apologize for what you did. You may need to apologize to someone else, but don’t forget to apologize to yourself. Feeling emotional during the process is normal. Telling yourself sorry for suffering from pain is vital. Then, focus on how you can learn from your mistake. When you focus on the learning portion of making mistakes, you will have minimal time to feel guilt.

How do I let go of regret?

Have You Been Beating Yourself Up Lately?

When trying to let go of regret, it’s important to realize everyone makes mistakes. No one on this Earth is perfect, and neither are you. Although you may feel significant pressure to be perfect, let go of this pressure. Whenever you make a mistake, realize that mistakes will always be made, no matter how hard you try. Rather than holding on to regret, apologize, right your wrongs, and move one. Use the painfulness that comes with regret to motivate yourself to not make the same mistake again. Let go of any negative self talk. If you still have difficulties, consider reaching out to a therapist for help.

“Through Suffering, I Become a Better Person”

Some people believe that suffering is a tool for self-betterment or may think that suffering is an inherent part of their religion. However, these beliefs can lead to a cycle of negative thinking and poor self-image, both of which contribute to mental disorders and overall unhappiness. Instead of believing that suffering should be part of your experience, seek to rectify the things that make you feel guilty, so you can lead a life where you encounter more happiness than suffering.

“Suffering Is Something I Deserve”

Guilt and shame play a major role in suffering. In fact, some people feel so much guilt that they believe they’re worthy of feeling bad and suffering. When you believe this, you instigate negative feelings that keep you down and put you in mental and physical harm. Regardless of what may have happened in the past or how you may feel about yourself, no one deserves to suffer. Help is available while you work through these feelings and recover your worthiness.

“I Am Supposed to Suffer”

As stated previously, self-punishment doesn’t only take physical forms like self-injury; it can also present itself in mental forms if someone believes they’re supposed to suffer. Whether this belief comes from guilt or a desire for self-improvement, some people implement this mantra into their daily lives and look for ways to suffer on a regular basis. If this resonates with you, it’s important to identify and stop this behavior, so you’re not putting yourself at risk for overwork or harm.

Saying No to Self-Punishment

Although recovering from self-punishment often requires outside help, there are things you can do at home to reduce your desire for self-punishment. It’s vital that you start saying no to self-punishment so you can turn to healthy coping mechanisms.

Take Some Time to Reflect Before Taking Action

As with any instinct, the urge to do something is often overwhelming at the moment. That’s what usually drives us to act in the first place. Before you decide to engage in any self-harm behavior, try to wait 15 minutes and see how you feel once that time has passed. More often than not, the urge to self-punish will diminish or maybe even disappear.

Focus on the Positives of Who You Are

People who punish themselves generally focus on what they do not like about themselves. They have unusually high levels of self-criticism. Research shows that focusing on your strengths and what you love about yourself can actually reduce the need for self-harm, promoting self-worth and positivity instead.

Find Activities That Can Take Its Place

Distraction can be a helpful coping mechanism when you want to self-punish. Instead of punishing yourself, try to find another activity that can take its place, such as writing in a journal, talking to a friend, or playing with a bracelet on your wrist.

Additional, consider embracing forms of good self-punishment, also called positive punishment. You have the ability to choose your punishment, as long as it’s for good. For example, if you binge-watched your favorite show all night, take on an additional chore the next day. You won’t have that extra free time you were hoping for, but you’ll feel good that you accomplished something.

The Importance of Reaching Out to a Counselor

If you or a loved one is struggling with self-punishment, seek out professional help as soon as possible. There are people you can talk to. With the support of a mental health professional, you have a better chance of dealing with this debilitating issue before it causes serious problems. There are better ways to deal with negative emotions, feelings, and situations, and a mental health professional can help you find the tools that work best for you. They can help you feel worthy again.

If you’re looking for a counselor, try reaching out to BetterHelp. You’ll gain access to licensed counselors who can meet with you online at the time that works best for you. If you’re not quite sure about online counseling, read the reviews of BetterHelp counselors below.

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Although self-punishment may seem like a justifiable response to certain feelings or actions, it often does more harm than good. You can learn new ways of coping with the help of a supportive counselor. Your journey starts here. Take the first step.

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