Tuesday, May 22, 2012

No Pain, No Gain: The Psychology of Self-Punishment

One of my favorite professors once told the following story: She was in the check-out line at the grocery store, and two young children, a boy and a girl, were seated in the cart behind her. When she unloaded some containers of yogurt onto the belt, the girl gazed at them longingly. Slowly, she began to reach her little arm towards the yogurts. Before she could touch them, her father slapped her arm away and said sternly, "No!" The girl cowered back in shame. A moment later she reached out again, and this time her brother slapped her arm, mimicking his father's admonishment. The girl again pulled back. Being a young child (and really wanting those yogurts), it wasn't long before she made one final attempt. But before anyone could stop her, she slapped her own hand away, shouting "No!" at herself. My professor was struck—and saddened—by this series of events. You could argue that the little girl had learned not to take other people's things and regulate her behavior, which is a good thing. But she had also learned to punish herself. 

The self-punishment we learn as children may continue into adulthood, when we become, in effect, parents to ourselves. Although some adults are more prone to self-flagellation than others, this tendency appears to be common even among psychologically healthy individuals. Research conducted in the field of social psychology suggests at least three major reasons why people might, at times, choose to punish themselves.
1. "I deserve to suffer." A basic assumption in psychology is that people are motivated to maintain good feelings and reduce bad feelings, but sometimes people do things to maintain or even increase bad feelings, like listening to a depressing song over and over again. Research conducted by Joanne Wood and colleagues suggests that individuals who are low in self-esteem are less motivated to repair bad moods. Why would this be? In line with the predictions of self-verification theory, which posits that people generally feel more comfortable with treatment that is familiar and consistent with their self-views, the researchers found that participants with low self-esteem were less motivated to feel good because feeling good was inconsistent with their negative self-views, and because they didn't feel they deserved to feel good. 

2. "Suffering will make me a better person." Pain is more than just an unpleasant physical sensation that signals injury or illness. It holds deep significance in many cultural and religious traditions as a means of cleansing or purifying undesirable aspects of the self. In research conducted by Brock Bastian and colleagues, participants who were randomly assigned to an experimental condition where they were instructed to recall a moral transgression, compared to those who recalled a neutral event, subsequently held their hands in ice water for a longer period of time. Importantly, among the group of participants who recalled wrongdoing, those who were randomly assigned to complete the painful ice water task, compared to a no-pain control group, subsequently reported a decrease in feelings of guilt. The researchers concluded that physical pain may restore feelings of moral righteousness following wrongdoing. It may also, they suggested, communicate feelings of remorse to others and reduce the threat of external punishment. Although reducing guilt in this way may provide relief, self-punishment is not the only way to right a wrong. Prosocial behaviors such as apology and making amends may be healthier and more constructive alternatives. 
3. "I'm supposed to suffer." Interestingly, people also sometimes choose to suffer when they expect to suffer, even if they haven't done anything wrong. In a classic study conducted by Ronald Comer and James Laird, a majority of participants who expected to have to eat a worm as part of the experiment subsequently chose to eat the worm when they were later told that they could actually choose a neutral task instead. 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. These results shed light on the question of why people sometimes tolerate bad treatment. Many people believe that the world is a just and fair place, so if they suffer, they assume that they must deserve it, or at least that they must endure it. Believing that things happen for a reason can be comforting, but at times this belief may impede efforts to reduce controllable forms of suffering, as was the case in this experiment.
Aside from submerging one's hands in ice water and eating worms, self-punishment can take many forms, ranging from negative self-talk to overt self-injury. Seemingly positive behaviors such as exercise and healthy eating can also be used as self-punishment when taken to an extreme, and some believe that even accidents may at times represent manifestations of unconscious guilt. Although self-punishment may provide short-term relief, restoring a sense of righteousness, familiarity, and justice, it can take a serious toll on mental health. Chronic self-punishment is characteristic of a number of mental illnesses, such as borderline personality disorder, depression, and eating disorders. So the next time you feel the urge to suffer for your sins, consider other ways of coping that can give you the same benefits without causing further pain. Some ideas: practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness, try to repair damaged relationships, and learn from your mistakes.

Bastian, B., Jetten, J., & Fasoli, F. (2011). Cleansing the Soul by Hurting the Flesh: The Guilt-Reducing Effect of Pain Psychological Science, 22 (3), 334-335 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610397058 References:
Comer, R., & Laird, J. (1975). Choosing to suffer as a consequence of expecting to suffer: Why do people do it? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32 (1), 92-101 DOI: 10.1037/h0076785

Wood JV, Heimpel SA, Manwell LA, & Whittington EJ (2009). This mood is familiar and I don't deserve to feel better anyway: mechanisms underlying self-esteem differences in motivation to repair sad moods. Journal of personality and social psychology, 96 (2), 363-80 PMID: 19159137

This post previously appeared on my Psychology Today blog.


  1. What is the most cost-effective way to get your hands on studies online beside paying for them one at a time? Is there a service that you can pay a flat monthly fee to that allows you unlimited access to studies and academic papers? I want to read the two you cite and loads of others but it does get cost-prohibitive to buy so many one at a time.

    1. That's a good question. Here are some suggestions:

      1) You may be able to get alumni access through the library of your undergraduate institution, for a fee, if you attended a college that includes this service. You could even try your local library - sometimes they provide access to online databases as well if you have a library card.

      2) You can try looking up the article on google scholar or just google the title and authors and see if you can find a full text available for free online.

      3) You can go to the authors' websites and see if they include links to their publications, and you can also email an author directly to request a reprint.

      Good luck!


    2. I'm a little late with this response, but thanks for the help!

  2. I also want to add a recommendation to the resources that covers a lot of this same ground: Self-Traps by William Swann. I think it may have been rereleased under a new name, but it talks about much of this. I enjoyed it a lot.

  3. Ooo, what a splendid write-up!

    I'm very happy that I got the chance to stumble upon this article, since I managed to learn a few things and get some clarifying information that I'm subtly using in a story.

    Much thanks for taking the time to do this!


    1. Thanks HMD, I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Thanks for posting this. I constantly struggle with #1 and I had not heard of the self-verification theory you mention. Maybe that can be another tool in my arsenal to try to bring some happiness in my life. In my case, it's very easy to list all the reasons I should be happy and next to impossible to actually feel that happiness.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. Feeling undeserving can definitely be an obstacle to happiness, and it is a difficult one to combat, since no amount of "objective" happiness can change it. Approaches for addressing this problem tend to focus on developing greater self-acceptance and challenging the validity of self-critical thoughts (the ones that say "You don't deserve to be happy"). It's difficult to do this on your own, though, so I hope you have had some support in this process, and I wish you the best!

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