Self-Harm as Self-Punishment

December 22, 2022 Kim Berkley

Some people self-harm because they believe they deserve pain—but self-harm is neither a safe nor effective means of self-punishment.

Turning to Self-Harm for Self-Punishment

Many people learn—often at a very young age—a simple cause-and-effect relationship. It goes like this: if you do something wrong, you are punished. It's the reason, or so we are taught, why kids go to time-out and adults go to jail. Some of us internalize this to the extent that, when no one else is around to do it, we will punish ourselves for our transgressions.

Sometimes, it's as simple and subtle as telling yourself, "Well, you didn't eat a salad for lunch, so you don't get dessert," or "Since you procrastinated on your report, you can't go to that party tonight."

I'm not a medical professional, so I can't speak to how effective or healthy this response is in any official capacity—but I will tell you, it doesn't do much for me.

However, I do know a bit about what it's like when you take this idea too far and turn to self-harm as a form of self-punishment. Now that is unhealthy—not to mention ineffective.

Why Self-Harm Is a Poor Choice of Self-Punishment

If the point of punishment is to prevent you from repeating your mistake, I speak from experience when I say that self-harm isn't much of a deterrent. The problem is that, for many people (myself included), the act of self-harm can bring relief, even catharsis. Yes, it hurts, but then you feel better—sort of like the relief that follows ripping a bandage off in one fell swoop. So instead of teaching yourself not to do a thing because you'll hurt afterward, the real lesson your subconscious is learning is that when you hurt yourself, you'll feel better.

Another problem is that self-harm isn't a conclusion to anything—rather, it's the beginning of a vicious cycle.

For example:

  • You make a mistake; you perceive it as a transgression.
  • You feel guilty or ashamed; you decide (consciously or subconsciously) that you deserve to be punished.
  • You hurt yourself; it's painful, but afterward, you're relieved because your punishment is over.
  • You feel guilty or ashamed of your self-harm or stressed about keeping it a secret.
  • You associate self-harm with relief from these feelings, so you hurt yourself again.

The cycle continues from here, spiraling slowly downward. It will look different for different people, but this is roughly how it looked for me much of the time. Simply put, self-harm creates far more problems than it solves.

There's also the issue of the transgressions themselves. If you're struggling emotionally, you're more prone to thought distortions. You might blow a simple mistake way out of proportion or blame yourself for things that aren't your fault. This can make the downward spiral even steeper—and that much more difficult to climb out of in the future.

Self-Harm as Self-Punishment: What to Do Instead

So what can you do instead of turning to self-harm for self-punishment? Here are just a few ideas:

  • Forgive yourself—try writing yourself letters or talking to yourself in the mirror.
  • Foster compassion—practice balancing negative thoughts with a more positive (but realistic) perspective.
  • Try cognitive behavioral therapy—this is best done with a therapist, but you can try a workbook at home to start.
  • Practice self-care—looking after your daily physical needs also boosts mental and emotional health.
  • Find creative outlets—try journaling, art therapy, music therapy, or something physical like dance.
  • Reward yourself—in my experience, celebrating your wins is more motivating than punishment for your failures.

More than anything, if you're self-harming as a form of self-punishment, I'd encourage you to try and talk to someone about it if you can. An external perspective will likely be more balanced and realistic than the view from your current emotional state, and other people tend to be more kind to us than we are to ourselves. Believe it or not, you do deserve kindness—and more importantly, you deserve a better solution to your problems than self-harm.

It's not easy to break the cycle, but know that it isn't impossible—and it will be well worth the effort in the end.

APA Reference
Kim Berkley (2022, December 22). Self-Harm as Self-Punishment, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Kim Berkley

Find Kim on Instagram, Facebook and her blog.

July, 10 2024 at 9:14 am

Was about to relapse into SH again after several years sober because of a few academic slipups that made me feel really awful and like I was a waste of space. For someone with quite a logical, rigid way of thinking, having these negative thought patterns challenged and argued in the same way was quite effective in stopping me. Thanks

January, 11 2024 at 1:06 am

I've hated myself for a long time. I've never amounted to anything. I've barely ever had any jobs and I'm close to being a middle-aged man with autism. I see myself as a loser who sucks at everything he ever sets out to do on his own and has nothing going on for his life and will always be an errand boy. I should have amounted to something; I should have already done something great to prove that I could accomplish anything despite my autism. But I can't even do that. So it's very hard to be positive about anything, especially when nobody gives you a chance and you are always rejected in a world where being autistic is a crime for which normal people show little to no pity or sympathy.

January, 17 2024 at 5:32 pm

Hi, J.D. I understand it's easier to say than done, but sometimes, it just takes a little bit of tweaking your mindset on "amounting to something". Different people have different goal posts, and it's true that there are goal posts that will always remain more aspirational than achievable. You say you "will always be an errand boy". What's wrong with that? Be the best errand boy you could be. In the same way you view the world as rejecting autistic people, I think it's worth seeing that everyone, no matter their job, is of value. The errands you do, whatever they are, are valued. You are valued. Great, schmeat. Being "great" is subjective. Be a great neighbor. Be a great friend.

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