Why We Humans are So Prone to Punishing Ourselves (Ouch!)

punishWe’re all familiar with punishment, as it starts when we’re just kids. We do something bad, we get punished. We pay the price and move on. Although it’s not always so easy to simply move on. Some of us instead become trapped in the chronic bad habit of punishing ourselves, again and again, which can eventually take a major toll on our mental health. 

Signs of Self-Punishment

Self-punishment doesn’t necessarily come from wearing a hairshirt or flogging yourself on the back until you bleed. The mental anguish with which you could be peppering yourself can be just as bad. Some signs that you’re a glutton for self-punishment include: 

  • Mentally beating yourself up for any imperfection, from the smallest faux pas to your emetophobia
  • Automatically attacking yourself any time you might feel embarrassed, rejected or as if you failed
  • Yelling at yourself, calling yourself names
  • Isolating yourself from people who care for you and about you
  • Neglecting your basic physical needs
  • Taking positive activities to an extreme, such as over-exercising or taking healthy eating habits to impossible heights
  • Compulsion to harm yourself, which is where hairshirts, flogging or even cutting are no longer just mentioned in jest 

Why We Do It

There are a handful of reasons that help explain why we humans are so prone to mentally beating ourselves to a pulp, with several outlined by PsychCentral and Psychology Today.

As a Defense

Self-punishment is a defense against the pain of life. Huh? For those of us who have been through a lot of rejection, failure, grief and anguish, we may have come to expect life to keep handing us more of it. When we reached out, we were scorned. When we tried, we failed. When things were going well, tragedy befell us.

Rather than continue to reach out, try to succeed, or enjoy when things are going well, we instead end up enraged that things typically did not. That rage shimmies inward where we turn it on ourselves, PsychCentral says. Voila, the habit of self-punishment is born.

Because We Feel We ‘Deserve to Suffer’

This fallacy often hits people with low self-esteem, Psychology Today explains. Those who have little self-worth are not always that gung-ho to try and shake off feelings of misery. They instead have not only become used to the misery, but they actually prefer it to feeling good. Feeling good, you see, doesn’t fall into line with the negative views they have of themselves. Those negative views also help ensure such folks keep on believing they are so bad, terrible and just plain awful that they simply don’t deserve to feel good.

Because Suffering Will ‘Make It All Better’

Here’s where that sneaky little guilt comes in. Here is also where we see the mentality behind hairshirts and self-flagellation. When we sin, or do something that makes us feel crummy or ashamed, the mental pain can often be offset by physical pain. Suffering through the physical pain, therefore, will restore our moral righteousness, right? A study noted by Psychology Today blogger Juliana Breines says so.

“[Pain] holds deep significance in many cultural and religious traditions as a means of cleansing or purifying undesirable aspects of the self,” Breines tells us.

She then points to an experiment undertaken by Brock Bastian and colleagues that involved a group of participants who were randomly asked to recall one of two scenarios. One group was asked to remember a “moral transgression” while the other was told to remember a neutral event. Those who recalled the moral transgression ended up holding their hands under ice water for a longer period of time than those who thought back to something neutral.

And there’s more. The group of folks who recalled moral transgressions was also divided into two groups. One group was told to hold their hands under ice water while the other was not subjected to a painful task after recalling their transgressions. The group that had been subjected to the painful ice water treatment reported feeling decreased amounts of guilt after the treatment.

Because We Were ‘Born to Eat a Worm’

Another experiment mentioned by Breines is a classic study undertaken by Ronal Comer and James Laird. It set up a group of people to expect to eat a worm as a part of the experiment. Here’s the kicker. Even when the folks were told they didn’t really have to eat a worm and could instead go for a neutral task, most of them went for the worm eating anyway.

Breines notes, “This was especially true for participants who came to terms with the perceived inevitability of their worm-eating fate by altering their self-views, deciding either that they deserved the punishment of eating a worm or that they were brave and could handle it.”

The concept extends far beyond worm eating and into many daily lives. Those who fall prey typically believe that life is fair and the only reason they keep getting the short end of the stick is because they must deserve it. They were born to suffer, they think. They were born to eat a worm.

What It Does to Us

Self-punishment might feel like it’s working and it can, albeit very briefly. Whatever sense of relief, justice or purity self-punishment may bring for the short-term is quickly overshadowed by the longer-term consequences on your mental health.

Several mental illnesses have self-punishment as one of their characteristics. They include depression, eating disorders and borderline personality disorders. Suffering from emetophobia can also lead to self-punishment for those who harbor the negative self-views that insist they were born to suffer from the fear of vomit or are afflicted with vomit phobia because, for some reason, they must deserve it.

Getting away from such thoughts, and chronic self-punishment, is a must to for your mental well-being. And our next blog will serve up some helpful suggestions on ways you can escape the self-punishment cycle. Stay tuned!

Coming soon: Ways to Stop Punishing Yourself


Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc