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Shame and guilt are strong drivers of human action. Most people will feel shame, guilt, or both when they do something that they or society deems to be bad.
Guilt and shame do differ.
Guilt tends to be about personally feeling bad because you know you did something wrong. For example, a person who stole something may feel guilty because they know what they did was wrong, but they still did it.
Guilt can also be indirect. It might be that you took an action that hurt someone unintentionally. You didn’t mean to, but it was still a wrong action that caused the person distress. That personal feeling is guilt.
On the other hand, shame is more of a feeling of embarrassment or distress at having done something wrong or foolish. You might feel ashamed because you were due to give a big presentation but did not prepare for it as thoroughly as you should have. You get up, make a fool of yourself, and feel ashamed because you know you should have tried harder.
Aspects of shame and guilt are often sociological. They are driven by things we are taught by culture, religion, or other people around us. And when we break those rules, we feel bad, which motivates us to want to fix them. That’s not often a healthy thing, but it’s necessary.
On the other hand, sometimes shame or guilt comes from within. We may have our own codified perspective of what is right and wrong etched in our own hearts.
Maybe you did something bad in your past, regret it, and never want to feel that way again. It could also be an action so heinous that you could never bring yourself to do it. Still, most actions you’ll experience aren’t that severe. You’re not going to be running around, doing heinous things.
There are healthy and unhealthy ways to address guilt and shame. First, we will talk about unhealthy methods, then we’ll move on to healthier methods. So, let’s dive into that.
Self-punishment and unhealthy coping skills.
There are healthy and unhealthy coping skills. Healthy coping skills assist you in dealing with difficult emotions in a way that is not destructive to your physical, emotional, or mental well-being.
On the other hand, unhealthy coping skills actually cause harm to you physically, emotionally, or mentally.
The problem is that many people don’t always have a clear perspective on the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping skills. As a result, they may turn to unhealthy coping skills to punish themselves.
The reason is that many people wrongly believe that punishment will help them atone for their wrong-doings and clear their feelings of guilt.
And it really doesn’t.
What self-punishment actually does is kick the can further down the road, where the guilt and shame can catch up with them later.
Self-punishment also develops into unhealthy long-term habits, like self-harm, that can be difficult to break. Even worse, it may develop into an addiction where the person craves those elements of self-harm to cope with the emotional difficulties that they are experiencing.
Many people believe that suffering is the key to self-improvement and character building. If they suffer for their transgressions, they will come out of the experience as a stronger person.
In reality, that kind of behavior often reinforces negative thoughts and emotions. Instead of processing the negativity to let it go, the person focuses more heavily on the negative emotions and reinforces them. Instead of building them up, it’s slowly whittling them down.
They may also continue to self-punish as a continued method of atonement or suffering.
What does self-punishment look like?
Self-punishment and self-harm aren’t necessarily physical, though they can be. Here are some examples of self-punishment in its different forms:
– constantly dwelling on the negative feelings that the wrong thing invoked
– withholding good things, rewards, food, or pleasure as a means to atone
– focusing on an internal narrative of tearing oneself down for doing the wrong thing
– physical self-punishment like cutting, burning, or flagellating oneself
– any type of physical pain used to distract oneself from emotional pain
– the person may mimic or develop eating disorders like binging and purging
– anger or rage directed at oneself or other people
Why doesn’t self-punishment work?
The simple answer is that self-punishment doesn’t actually solve the problem.
Instead, it encourages negative feelings, like an attack on your self-worth, fuels depression, or makes you feel like you are less than. Some people even mimic aspects of personality disorders when they feel guilt or shame over an action.
The act of self-punishment also reinforces the idea that it’s okay to attack ourselves for wrong-doing. But unfortunately, that prevents us from taking responsibility for our actions and, more importantly, responsibility for correcting our wrong actions and making them right.
How do I know if I’m engaging in self-punishment?
How do you know if you’re engaging in self-punishment or just trying to motivate yourself to be better? Well, there are some things you can look for.
– Is it allowing you to avoid the problem? Some people use self-punishment as a means to avoid taking responsibility for their actions with the people they hurt. They beat themselves up internally, tell themselves that’s good enough, but never actually reach out to try to make the situation better.
– Is the action constructive? What are you actually accomplishing with your actions? Is it doing anything? Is it just making you feel bad? What is the end goal of the action?
– Are you doing active harm to yourself? This may not be something as obvious as direct self-harm, like cutting or hitting yourself. It could be other things, like not eating, not allowing yourself an enjoyable experience, or otherwise taking some action to make you feel bad.
– Are you avoiding or interrupting positive self-care? That may be something like not taking a relaxing bath on your self-care day, not exercising, or not doing something you enjoy because you feel that you don’t deserve it.
If your actions touch any of these, it is likely a negative self-punishment and should be examined closely.
What’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms?
Unhealthy coping skills feel much different than healthy ones. That can really throw you off if you’re not expecting it. Here’s the main difference:
Unhealthy coping skills often provide immediate and overwhelming gratification. For example, suppose you were to self-harm. In that case, you have the immediate feedback of pain and the internal narrative of “I deserve this because I’m a bad person.” Suppose you were to over-eat and binge as self-punishment. In that case, you have immediate feedback of the discomfort of eating and then throwing it up later.
Healthy coping is much smaller and quieter than unhealthy coping skills. This is because you don’t really get the immediate feedback of using positive affirmations to reinforce that you’re not a bad person. It can be hard to do if you have low self-esteem or have negative feelings about yourself. You may even struggle to believe a positive affirmation or acknowledge that you are a human being who is prone to human mistakes, just like everyone else.
You’ll need to make a continued effort with healthy coping skills to slowly lay the guilt and shame to rest. This will be a long-term process, so don’t expect immediate results or strong forms of immediate feedback, particularly if you don’t have a good relationship with yourself.
How do I let go of the guilt and shame?
As previously mentioned, punishing yourself doesn’t really solve the created problem. It’s hard to forgive yourself for wrong actions if you’ve done nothing to fix the action.
Assuming you’re still on speaking terms with the person you wronged, the first step is to apologize to that person for your actions. Once you do, you can ask them how you can make it up to them. Then follow through on their request, assuming it is reasonable and possible.
You’ll want to consider the request. Not everyone is a great person, and some people will definitely try to take advantage of your guilt to further use to their own ends. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.
There is definitely a limit to what you should be doing to fix the situation. Suppose they are making unreasonable or impossible demands. In that case, they may not actually be interested in forgiving you or trying to move on from the situation.
Some people just like to dwell in their own negativity.
2. Forgive yourself.
One of the hardest skills you can develop is the ability to forgive yourself.
The first thing you want to do is heavily examine the wrong thing that you did.
Did you do it on purpose? Was it a malicious action that you planned?
Or did you make a mistake because you didn’t have all the information? Was your mistake unintentional and still managed to hurt someone in the process?
These are different situations that require a different approach.
Let’s say you chose to take a negative action that hurt someone else. Maybe you were angry and didn’t really think the situation through before you lashed out at them. And you feel guilty now because they didn’t deserve that, and you expect better from yourself. Sometimes we do impulsive things because anger makes us blind.
In that situation, you can acknowledge the bad behavior and strive to correct the behavior or beliefs that caused you to make that decision.
For example, you thought retribution was the right thing to do, but you find that all it did was make the situation worse. As a result, you don’t feel better about it, and the other person is now angrier than they were before.
Therefore, you have to learn to not do that again. It may require anger management or stress-releasing activities to help you deal with the emotions.
But what if it was an accident? What if you did something that hurt someone else unintentionally? Well, that’s a bit easier to deal with. You can start with an apology and try to make things right. They may just accept your apology without strings attached if they see that you made an honest mistake. Honest mistakes happen.
The issue that follows is often one of internal dialogue. If you feel the urge to self-punish for those mistakes, then it’s likely that those feelings will be strong and oppressive. You may not feel good about yourself or have the ability to be as kind to yourself as needed.
Remember: you are a flawed human being, and you will make mistakes. Literally everyone in the world does. Every person will inevitably mess something up with someone or something they care about. It does not mean you are a lesser person. It does not mean that you are unworthy of forgiveness or kindness, particularly to yourself.
3. Let it go.
The guilt and shame typically come in waves. You may just be sitting there, minding your own business, when a wave of guilt washes over you out of nowhere. It settles on you like a weight on your shoulders. You can’t get your mind to focus on anything else. It could be that you have intrusive thoughts constantly interjecting those unwanted negative thoughts and feelings.
In the case of intrusive thoughts, that may be a byproduct of mental illness. Many people with mental illnesses or personality disorders struggle with unwanted, negative intrusive thoughts that affect their emotional well-being. That is an issue that needs to be addressed by mental health professionals.
On the other hand, you can sometimes combat those negative thoughts and feelings by pushing back against them. You may have a narrative that you are a bad person because you did a bad thing. Instead of focusing on that thought, you can try to replace it with, “I am a flawed person who did a wrong thing.”
The language that we use when we talk to ourselves matters. It matters because that’s the narrative we will hear most often. You’re typically going to be in your own head 24/7. If you have an unkind internal monologue toward yourself, you’re just going to tear yourself down over time. So the language we choose, “I am a flawed person who did a wrong thing.” is more accurate.
You don’t have to convince yourself that you’re a good person if that’s not something you can believe about yourself. After all, acknowledging that you are a flawed person, particularly if you don’t have good feelings about yourself, is a much shorter leap of reason. And you acknowledge that you did the wrong thing, which is also good.
The more you work to replace negative thoughts with grounded or positive ones, the easier it will be to embrace your mistake, process it, and let it go.
4. Focus on your strengths and positive self-talk.
If you find yourself trapped in a narrative of negativity and self-punishment, try focusing on the positive. Look at your real strengths and remind yourself that you have these things. That can be really hard if you don’t have a good opinion of yourself, but it may even help. What things can you point to in yourself that you can be proud of?
Are you a good listener? Are you always there for your friends? Are you a good student? Maybe a good son or daughter? Are you a good parent? Are you trying to be a good parent? Are you trying to be a good person? A better person? Do you have some set of skills that no one else does? What about talents?
Everyone has something. And I, the writer, would even take it a step further. If you are trying to become a better person, trying to do the right thing, then you’re already leaps and bounds ahead of others.
There are plenty of people out there who simply do not give a f*ck about who they hurt or how they hurt them. They go through life doing whatever negative things because they just want to. But that’s not you, is it? No. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here reading this article, trying to gain some knowledge and wisdom on how to fix that. Right? Right.
So there’s strength right there – the ability to see that you’re a flawed person who needs some additional help. And speaking of additional help…
5. Talk to a mental health counselor.
The issue that you’re facing is not a simple one. It may be beyond the scope of self-help. You may not have an entirely accurate perspective of the situation or even of yourself. If you have a severely negative perception of yourself, then you may not be capable of being fair to yourself without some outside perspective.
You may also find other extenuating circumstances that you may not have considered. For example, let’s say your mom is a selfish person who has always felt entitled. She insists that you wronged her for whatever reason, and you may accept that as it is. But it may not be how it actually is. If you’ve been manipulated or gaslighted by your mother since you were a kid, you may internalize that blame and assume that she’s right. Well, maybe she’s not right. Maybe she’s lying, so you feel bad so she can continue to manipulate you.
And will you see that for what it is? Probably not, because you may not fully grasp all of how she has manipulated yet. But you will, with some help from a good therapist.
So if you find yourself struggling to accept your flaws, find resolutions, ask for forgiveness, and forgive yourself, we would heartily encourage you to seek help from a trained professional. This is not a simple problem to solve. And while we can give you suggestions on how to manage and potentially address it, you may need more personalized, professional advice to make progress.
A good place to get professional help is the website BetterHelp.com – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
You’ll still get the same quality of care as you get with in-person therapy, but it’s more convenient and quite often more affordable.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is a good self-punishment?
Honestly, there aren’t any good self-punishments. Punishing yourself doesn’t really help the situation you are trying to work through, nor does it make you feel better about yourself in the long run. It’s best to avoid it.
What causes self-punishment?
Typically, it is feelings of guilt or shame that cause someone to engage in self-punishment. They seek to punish themselves because they have either done something wrong, they believe they have done something wrong, they feel they have let themselves down, or someone else has made them feel bad about themselves.
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