Punishing yourself is a common way of dealing with negative emotions. But mindful awareness and talking with a trusted professional may help you cope.

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Do you always see yourself as wrong no matter what? Or maybe it just feels easier for you to accept the blame in situations? These are common ways of self-punishing that can feel like easy solutions to emotionally challenging situations.

Everybody deals with the stresses of life differently. How you were raised and how you view yourself play a big role in the way you choose to cope with negative emotions or stressful experiences.

But self-punishment can be complicated, as you may feel that your default reactions are the only option.

When a situation is challenging, there are many ways that you can respond. With the right knowledge and assistance, responding in a different way can become a new and comfortable behavior.

Self-punishment is broadly defined as a deliberate attempt to harm yourself for your perceived wrongdoings. Self-harm can take the form of either physical or psychological actions against yourself.

If you notice that you respond to your mistakes or feelings of wrongdoing by forcing yourself through a painful, corrective action, then you may be self-punishing. The painful action you take can assume many different forms and can be totally unique to you as well.

Self-punishment can look like a lot of different actions. The actions can be obvious and extreme, like harm to your body, or they can subtle, like blaming yourself for something that’s not actually your fault.

Examples of physical self-harm include any type of action you take to intentionally cause yourself physical pain. A common example may be forcing yourself to work out extra days at the gym after overindulging in food. Other examples may include:

  • excessive drinking or use of drugs
  • oversleeping or sleep-deprivation
  • cutting, burning, or bruising yourself
  • pulling your hair
  • punching the wall
  • refraining from eating

On the other hand, ways of emotionally or psychologically self-punishing can be less obvious but qualify all the same. A common example may be excessively criticizing or insulting yourself after making a mistake. Other examples may include:

  • any type of negative self-talk
  • forcing yourself to overwork
  • denial of pleasure
  • giving up your money
  • not allowing others to help you

If you find yourself bringing some type of harm upon yourself, you may be wondering why you do this. Self-punishment can serve a variety of different purposes for different people.

The reasons may differ depending on the specific scenario but likely involve helping regulate negative emotions.

Can you recall an experience where you made a mistake that led to negative feelings about yourself? The emotions thereafter may have felt complex or difficult to manage.

When it doesn’t seem like you have the right tools to regulate your emotions, you may start to feel overwhelmed or incapable of handling them. This is may lead to self-harm, and this is particularly true in the case of physical self-harm.

A 2021 study noted that emotional dysregulation is associated with self-harming behavior, as well as, interpersonal and intrapersonal factors of non-suicidal self-injury.

Intense feelings of anxiety or sadness, for example, can be challenging to manage and lead someone to self-punish as a way of reducing the intensity of these feelings.

A similar conclusion was noted in a separate 2021 study of adolescent females, in which participants stated they engaged in self-harm to control difficult feelings and experience relief.

Research suggests that self-harm is closely related to challenges in finding a way to cope with difficult feelings and experiences as adolescents process self-identity development.

It was also noted that self-punishing behaviors usually begin in adolescence, highlighting the importance of your upbringing.

If you start to feel that there’s no point in asking for help or that there are no solutions to what you’re feeling, it can be easy to direct the negativity toward yourself. You may even start to believe that you’re the problem and that you need to be punished as a result.

You may feel that self-punishment is ultimately going to benefit you by offering a correction to the perceived problem. In that sense, self-punishment becomes a means of self-discipline.

But what if you’re not the problem? What if you gave yourself a little more space to explore what’s driving the self-blame?

Are you currently in crisis?

If you feel like you’re having a mental health emergency, you can:

If you decide to call an emergency number like 911, ask the operator to send someone trained in mental health, like Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) officers.

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The first step to stop punishing yourself is to cultivate awareness of when you’re doing it. Developing awareness and even catching yourself before you take an action can be a good start.

But it can take work. Sometimes self-punishment can be tied to childhood traumas or experiences. If you were blamed for wrongdoings by your family or friends when you were young, you might feel at a core level that it’s always your fault when an issue arises.

It may also lead you to feel that there’s something fundamentally wrong or uncorrectable about you. In this case, it’s a behavior that you learned growing up, and one that’s still with you. But it’s simply not true.

Connect with a mental health professional

This may be especially helpful if you feel that you’re holding onto deeply ingrained, negative beliefs about yourself. If self-punishment seems like the only way you know how to respond to negative or overwhelming emotions, seeking out a mental health provider may be beneficial.

A licensed professional can offer perspective about how these beliefs developed and why they may not be true. Further, you can work with them over time to build new, healthier beliefs about yourself.

Discover new emotional regulation techniques

There are lots of different techniques that you can try to help regulate your emotions. Techniques can vary from mindfulness practices to simply stopping yourself and asking how you could respond differently than usual.

One or more of these techniques may offer more benefits than you think. If used before a moment of self-punishment, it may be enough to prevent you from falling into it.

Example of an emotional regulation technique

If you’d like and you feel safe you may consider the following practice. Take 3 to 4 deep breaths and bring your awareness to the points of your feet making contact with the ground beneath you.

Try to observe your thoughts without judgment, and if you become overwhelmed notice your natural breath, without controlling it. If you’re comfortable, you may also decide to bring a hand to your chest to further provide yourself comfort during this practice.

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Talk to others

Can you think of a close friend or family member who would be willing to listen when you feel like punishing yourself? Communicating with a loved one may offer a sense of comfort or relief from the burden of guilt or shame.

Self-punishment is one way of adapting to emotional challenges. It can feel like the right behavior in the moment, or even just make you temporarily feel better or more in control of your life.

If self-punishment is your default reaction, know that there are other ways of responding that can ultimately benefit you.

If working with a provider is comfortable for you, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might be a good place to start, as it can help restructure your behaviors. For a simpler start, it may help just to reach out to a confidant in your time of need.