Do you always feel guilty in every situation? Or maybe it’s just easier for you to automatically take the blame without thinking? This is a typical example of self-punishment, which for many of us seems like an easy solution to any emotional problems.

We all react differently to stressful situations. Our habitual ways of dealing with stress and negative emotions depend largely on our upbringing and how we view ourselves.

If we are used to punishing ourselves in difficult situations, we may feel that there are no other options. In reality, of course, this is not the case. By learning to understand ourselves better and learning alternative ways of dealing with stress, we can learn to respond to unpleasant situations (which inevitably arise in anyone’s life) in a more constructive way.


This is what psychologists call attempts to deliberately harm ourselves (physically or psychologically) “as punishment” for some wrongdoing we have allegedly done. The “punishments” can range from the obvious (self-harm, self-cutting, etc.) to the less obvious (for example, when we blame ourselves for something that is not really our fault).


Physical self-punishments are any actions we take that intentionally cause us physical pain or great discomfort. For example, we have broken the diet and allowed ourselves to eat too much and now ‘punish’ ourselves with additional gruelling workouts at the gym. Here are some typical examples:

Emotional and psychological self-punishment are not as obvious, but are essentially similar. A typical example is excessive self-criticism (we scold ourselves mercilessly for minor mistakes and miscalculations). Here are a few more examples:


The reasons for self-punishment vary, but in most cases we do it to cope with difficult feelings.

Imagine a situation in which you have made a mistake or misstep and, as a result, you have negative emotions towards yourself (anger towards yourself, shame, feelings of inferiority, etc.). It seems that you are unable to cope or deal with these feelings and the only way to alleviate them is to hurt or punish yourself (of course, this is not the case).

Research also confirms that self-harm is usually associated with an inability to cope with unpleasant and difficult experiences

This is particularly common in adolescents, as many have not yet mastered the skills of emotional self-regulation.

If we feel in a difficult situation that it is useless to ask for help and that there is no way out, we often direct our own negative emotions towards ourselves. Sometimes we start to think that we are the problem and that we deserve to be punished. We may even believe that this punishment will do us good and somehow help us to solve our problems. It seems to us that we are not really “punishing” ourselves, but we are exercising self-discipline.

But what if we are not the problem at all? Before giving in to the impulse, it’s worth pausing, trying to sort ourselves out and understand where this urge to self-blame comes from.


To overcome the unhealthy habit of self-punishment, it is first important to recognise the problem and understand the situations in which we tend to deliberately hurt ourselves. By understanding what is going on, we will be able to stop in time.

In practice, this may require a lot of work on ourselves, especially if our tendency to self-punishment is caused by childhood psychological traumas. For example, if at an early age you were constantly blamed for something, you may have a tendency to blame yourself immediately if you have any problems. You may also have developed a belief that you are “incorrigibly bad”. Of course, all such ideas about yourself are not true.

What can you do?

1. Seek the advice of a psychologist or psychotherapist
You need professional help especially if you have strong and deeply rooted negative ideas about yourself (‘I’m a failure’, ‘I’m incomplete’, etc.). The therapist will help you to understand where you have got these ideas and why they are wrong. In the process you will be able to develop new, healthy and realistic ideas about yourself.

2. Learn techniques for managing emotions
There are many techniques and methods by which we can control our feelings and make them less intense and painful. Mindfulness and/or meditation practices and breathing exercises are very effective. Often, in a difficult situation (in which we usually resort to self-punishment) it is enough to simply stop and ask ourselves: “Can’t I react differently this time, in a more constructive way?”

An example of a simple technique for emotional self-control: take 3-4 deep breaths and focus your attention on your feet – feel them resting on the ground or the floor beneath your feet. Try to just watch the flow of thoughts in your head – without judging or condemning. If you feel that you can’t cope with your emotions, concentrate on the rhythm of your breathing (breathe freely and naturally) with your hand on your chest.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family for support
Consider to whom those close to you can safely talk about the difficult experiences that are forcing you to punish yourself? Telling them will lessen your feelings of guilt and shame.


More often than not, we resort to self-punishment because we don’t know how else to deal with an overwhelming or difficult experience. We think we are doing the right thing, and we may even feel briefly relieved. But in the long run, self-punishment causes us more harm than good. There are many other, healthier and more productive ways of dealing with difficult emotions. You can learn them yourself or seek help from a psychologist – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is particularly effective in such cases.