why do we punish ourselves - Self punishment psychology

By M.Farouk Radwan, MSc.

Self punishment psychology

Why would a person want to punish himself?
After all humans usually do their best to avoid harm. In fact one of the popular motivation theories state that people do their best to avoid emotional pain. See Positive and negative motivation

If that's the case then why would a person do an action that could make him suffer even more?
The simple answer is that this emotional suffering can be done either consciously or unconsciously to gain a bigger emotional benefit.

Guilt is the emotion that is connected the most to self punishment. Guilt can feel really bad and a typical human would do his best to avoid feeling guilty. Now in many cases the emotional harm resulting from self punishment is much less than the emotional harm of guilt itself and this is why the person chooses self punishment.

In other words a person can punish himself just to ease the intolerable guilt and so feel better about himself. A person can even punish himself before guilt kicks in just to make sure that he is avoiding it all together.

In such a case self punishment is considered a defensive measure against the emotion of guilt.

Self punishment and the person's beliefs

In one experiment it was shown that people feel better when they get treated in a way that is inline with their beliefs even if that way involved punishment. A religious person for example might feel better if he felt that he was punished because of a sin that he committed.

Generally we do our best to protect our beliefs and anything that strengths our beliefs is considered a positive thing even if it involved some kind of a punishment.

In such a case punishment can be seen a way of purification of the soul. While the person inflicts harm on himself and feels pain he also experiences a great relief because of believing that he is becoming a better person. See How to stop self harm

People who think that the world is a very fair place always believe that the bad person gets punished in this life. Now based on those beliefs a person might get an intense desire to be punished if he believed he was a bad person.

This is one reason why some people think that they don't deserve to succeed or to be happy. See I don't deserve to be happy.

The person uses the self punishment mechanism in such cases to reassure himself that his beliefs are correct. If for example someone was mean to that person then by punishing himself when he becomes mean to others he will believe that the one who was mean to him will get punished.

Self punishment to elevate self worth

Self punishment can also be used as an unconscious mechanism to make the person feel more worthy. I am pretty sure you know that both guilt and shame can affect a person's self esteem. When a person punishes himself he reduces those emotions and so feels better about himself.

The same mechanism can also happen for a different reason. Sometimes the unconscious mind of a person might be too desperate to make him feel strong that it uses self punishment to achieve that goal. See What are subconscious goals

By making a person believe that he was strong enough to withstand a punishment the person can feel much better about himself.

Self punishment to harm others

Sometimes self punishment can be used as an unconscious mechanism to inflict harm on others. According to Adlerian psychology a person might harm himself in a way or another just to make others feel guilty or to get their attention.

The most famous example is the person who harms himself after a breakup just to let their ex lover know about the harm that happened to them. Again this usually happens on the unconscious level so the typical person won't even know that he is executing such a plan.

Another famous example is the student who refuses to study and decides to fail, again on the unconscious level, just to send a powerful message to his unavailable parents.

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