You’ve done something that hurt someone else, perhaps even yourself. You regret it, but you can’t take it back, so you wait for someone to notice and provide some sort of correction to relieve your guilt.
Mistakes of any kind often provoke criticism from others, though more significant errors might trigger a harsher critique, or punishment.
Maybe you don’t enjoy this punishment, whether it involves offering an apology or doing act of kindness. But once it’s over, you probably feel much better. After all, you’ve atoned for your misdeed and earned forgiveness.
When no one catches your slip-up, your guilt might linger. If you don’t feel able to own up, for whatever reason, you might look for ways to self-punish in order to relieve your guilt.
It might feel like the only logical move in the moment, but self-punishment tends to do more harm than good.
Self-punishment comes in many forms. At its most extreme, it might involve some type of self-harm.
But it could also refer to:
- withholding a reward
- lecturing yourself mentally
- continuing to dredge up bad feelings long after a regrettable decision
Where does this urge come from? Cultural messages and other complex factors can contribute, so there’s not always a simple answer. The following explanations often play a part, though.
We believe suffering improves our character
The desire to become a better person is fairly common. While this goal is an admirable one, it often involves some emotional distress: You wish you were better, so you punish yourself for failing to improve.
Many people see pain (physical or emotional) as a way to restore integrity and virtuousness. You might see punishment from someone else as a deserved, just action that absolves you of your “sins.”
Undergoing suffering in the form of self-punishment can seem like a similarly productive way to pay for mistakes. By holding yourself accountable when no one else does, you show remorse and restore your personal sense that you aren’t, in fact, a bad person.
We believe we deserve it
Children often learn shame at an early age. You might feel the first stirrings when parents or other caregivers suggest your behavior violates their expectations or broader social norms.
It’s not always easy to separate shame from guilt, particularly when they show up together, but here’s one helpful way of looking at it: Guilt typically relates to actions, while shame usually relates to self-identity.
You might experience guilt after a specific mistake, while shame describes a general sense of yourself as unworthy.
These feelings of unworthiness can prompt self-punishment, even if you can’t trace them back to anything specific. As 2015 research points out, people more prone to shame tend to punish themselves more readily.
We want to relieve guilt
In some cases, you might hesitate to come clean after a mistake, believing this would only cause more pain.
When you feel guilty for thoughts you can’t express or actions you can’t apologize for, you might see self-punishment as a way of redeeming yourself, at least in your own eyes.
In a small study from 2010, participants asked to recall an instance of unethical behavior and then complete a painful task (leaving their hand in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could) reported less guilt after their “punishment.”
Additional research from 2017 also explored the link between guilt and self-punishment. It suggested that people who felt guilty about keeping secrets from their romantic partners often attempted to relieve that guilt by denying themselves enjoyable activities or taking less pleasure them.
Punishment isn’t always the most effective tool, but there are times when it can lead to personal growth.
Say you’ve promised yourself you’ll take the afternoon to relax at the beach after you get your work done. You dedicate the morning to work, but for some reason, you just can’t focus and you end up getting very little done.
When the afternoon rolls around, instead of taking off to the beach, you stay home and make a renewed effort to finish up.
Denying yourself the planned trip provides a second chance to do what you need to do and motivates you to stay on task next time you’ve planned something fun.
For changing behavior
Self-punishment could also encourage you to address problematic behavior.
Perhaps you and a few work friends decide to play a prank on a coworker. “Just some harmless fun,” you tell yourselves, but the prank really upsets your coworker. They disappear into the bathroom, avoiding everyone for the rest of the day.
They never find out you were involved, but you still want to make amends. You arrange for an anonymous delivery of their favorite candy and take them out to lunch later that week.
Next time someone mentions a prank, you remember your coworker’s embarrassment and decline to participate.
While some forms of self-punishment might be useful, the problem is that it can easily become a harmful cycle that’s hard to get out of.
Instead of forgiving yourself for normal human errors, you might begin fixating on even minor slip-ups, offering unkind judgment instead of a self-loving “I’ll do better next time.”
It doesn’t always resolve the problem
Say you feel guilty because you lied to someone or did something you want to keep secret. Punishing yourself might reduce your guilt and help you feel better. Yet it doesn’t address the real issue — the thing you’re hiding.
In the future, you might find yourself lying again in order to maintain your deception. This lie creates more guilt, which you may attempt to resolve with more self-punishment. A pretty unpleasant cycle, to say the least.
It can create more distress
Consider your canceled trip to the beach. If you spend the afternoon criticizing yourself for your earlier distraction, you might still struggle to complete your work.
By the end of the day, you feel pretty miserable. You missed out on something you were looking forward to, and you still have tons of work to finish.
The negative self-talk playing on repeat in your head also has you feeling as if you can’t do anything right.
Instead of resolving to try again tomorrow, you decide you don’t deserve any rewards and throw yourself into your work instead.
This pattern will likely leave you feeling drained and burnt out, which can take a much bigger toll on your work than an afternoon at the beach.
Not sure if your approach to self-punishment lies more in the motivational self-improvement category or the unhelpful and potentially harmful one?
This can sometimes prove a little challenging, but asking yourself these questions can help:
- Is this behavior constructive? Will the thing you’re doing actually help you improve, or just make you feel worse?
- What’s keeping me from making amends in person? Generally speaking, confessing your mistake is usually best, if you have that option.
- Will this behavior contribute to lasting harm? Negative self-talk, self-harm, excessive exercise, and skipping meals are all forms of self-punishment that can have lasting effects on emotional and physical health.
- Does this behavior replace healthy self-care? Punishment that keeps you from taking care of yourself is never helpful. Working late into the night, for example, might seem a good way to compensate for distraction, but this can quickly disrupt your sleep and affect your health.
Self-punishment could help relieve guilt after you do something you’re not proud of. But it may not do much to improve your overall feelings about yourself, especially if you also have feelings of shame and low self-worth.
Thankfully, self-compassion offers a beneficial alternative. Not only does it help you get more comfortable with the idea that mistakes are merely part of being human, but it also helps you learn to love yourself regardless of your perceived flaws.
Self-compassion can also help ease even long-held pain and promote self-worth, making it easier to treat yourself with love and kindness. Over time, greater self-regard can improve your faith in your ability to make positive change.
It’s easy to cling to self-blame after wrongdoing. If you don’t feel worthy of forgiveness, you might struggle to let your mistake go.
Try to keep in mind that life involves the occasional error, and you deserve a chance to try again (and again, and again, if needed) to show yourself you can indeed do better.
Reframing your mistakes as opportunities for growth, rather than failures, can also make it easier to practice forgiveness toward yourself.
You can only ever do your best. Even if your best falls short of what you envision for yourself, you can still use what you’ve learned to guide your choices in the future.
Most people are pretty good at rewarding themselves when they believe they’ve done something right, but sometimes self-compassion involves rewarding yourself even when you think you’ve done something wrong.
Next time you feel guilty for getting distracted at work, ask yourself if your lack of focus means you really need a break.
Treating yourself with kindness makes it easier to acknowledge and respect your needs instead of punishing yourself for having them.
Make it a habit
It can take some time to get the hang of self-compassion, but you’ll usually notice it comes more easily with practice.
Build up self-compassion skills by:
A long-standing pattern of self-punishment might be tough to overcome alone, particularly when it relates to shame, unworthiness, or difficulty forgiving yourself.
If guilt causes significant emotional distress, affects your relationships, or keeps you from finding enjoyment in life, professional support can make a big difference.
Therapy provides a safe space to address:
- memories that trigger guilt and shame
- self-harm and other unhelpful self-punishment behaviors
- negative self-talk
A therapist can help you explore healthier approaches to managing and resolving guilt, including self-compassion and resilience.
When your harshest critic is yourself, self-punishment might seem like the best path toward atonement. You’ll usually find, though, the compassionate route results in a more productive journey.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.