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Why Do We Punish Ourselves?

Studies show self-punishment is surprisingly common. But there's a better way.

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When the Black Plague spread across Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, people publicly whipped themselves with irons in bloody processions of self-flagellation because they believed it would cleanse their souls and ward off the deadly disease.

As civilization advanced, so have our methods of self-punishment, as evidenced by the lack of people who whip themselves into a bloody mess in public and the abundance of people who bang their heads into a wall in private.

Indeed, the practice of self-punishment is far more common than we realize.

Why People Resort to Self-Punishment

One of our biggest misconceptions about self-punishment is that only mentally unstable people resort to such measures. A recent study asked undergraduate college students to recall a time they felt guilty, sad, or went grocery shopping (the control group). In the second part of the study, participants were told they would receive six mild electrical shocks. The voltage for the first shock was set to a detectable but non-painful level. The participants were then given the option to raise the voltage for each successive shock, should they choose to do so.

Participants who had recalled feeling sad or going grocery shopping before the experiment did not raise the shock level past the unpleasant/painful threshold. However, participants who had recalled feeling guilty did—they raised the level of shock well into mildly painful territory. Again these were not people preselected for masochism or emotional instability.

The use of self-punishment to reduce feelings of guilt has been documented in other studies as well. For example, participants who were made to feel guilty by depriving a fellow student of a few lottery tickets were willing to keep their hands in freezing ice water for significantly longer periods of time (which can be quite painful) when the person they had "wronged" was in the room with them. What is remarkable about these studies is that the people in them are not trying to ward off a deadly plague but merely trying to assuage fairly mild feelings of guilt, resulting from depriving someone they don’t even know of lottery tickets (that are most likely worthless anyway).

Self-Punishment and Guilt

Guilt is considered a pro-social emotion, as its function is to preserve our important relationships and maintain the orderly functioning of communities. But we pay a personal price for feelings of guilt as well—unresolved guilt often prevents us from enjoying life and thriving emotionally. By practicing self-punishment, we ease our feelings of guilt, free our conscience, and allow ourselves to reengage in life.

Self-punishment tends to serve a dual purpose as it not only relieves internal feelings of guilt but impacts how others perceive us as well. Another recent study found that the more costly an apology appears to be to the transgressor, the more sincere others perceive the apology to be. This finding was found to be true across cultures in North and South America, Europe, and Asia—and regardless of people’s religious beliefs. By engaging in self-punishment or costly apologies, people demonstrate that they are willing to harm themselves in some way to even the score with those they have wronged, thereby restoring their reputation as a fair person.

The question is: Are some people more prone to self-punishment than others?

Who is Prone to Self-Punishment?

According to evolutionary psychologists, we all engage in some form of reputation-management to preserve our standing in our communities, be they small family units or our larger circle of friends, colleagues, or neighbors. Therefore, the more prone we are to feeling bad about ourselves and how we come across to others, the more likely we might be to engage in self-punishment to rectify and manage our reputations.

Another recent study examined people who were high in shame-proneness and found they were far more likely to engage in self-punishment than those who were less inclined to feel shame.

The finding highlights some of the problems with self-punishment as a reputation-management and guilt-reducing mechanism. Yes, one doesn’t have to be crazy to engage in these behaviors—they are hardly uncommon.

But that still doesn’t mean they are wise.

There are far less costly, less shaming, and less painful ways to ease feelings of guilt and maintain our reputations than modern forms of whipping oneself with irons. For example, apologies do not have to be costly to be effective. (See The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology.) Further, although no studies have investigated this directly, practicing self-punishment probably has a detrimental effect on your self-esteem. You might garner forgiveness from others, and from yourself, but shaming yourself publicly will likely diminish your self-respect, self-worth, and feelings of entitlement and personal empowerment far more than the short-term benefits of forgiveness can boost them.

The bottom line: It's best to seek solutions to feelings of guilt that actually heal emotional and psychological wounds, rather than practice those that leave you with even greater ones.

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch.

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