When we’re young, punishment seems like the most horrible thing an adult can do to a child. What crime is so bad that it means I have to sit on the couch while everyone else gets to play? It’s just cruel. So our six-year-old selves vow never to treat our offspring with such inhumanity. Except then we grow older and realize that punishment was only used in order to turn us into the fine, upstanding citizens we are today. The problem is, some of us tend to over-correct, and we do so on ourselves. Those of us most guilty of guilt-infliction are ones who suffer from depression.
Guilt is actually a good thing. When we wrong someone and are met with negative emotions, it teaches us morality. Those who do not experience guilt can easily find themselves the subject of a serial killer t.v. special. However, guilt is best in moderation. If we overdo it, the emotion goes from pro-social to self-destructive. One core symptom of depression is excessive or inappropriate guilt.
The easiest way to rid ourselves of guilt is to recompense the wronged. Break a dish? Replace it with another. No harm done. But guilt rarely derives from such simple issues. Missing out on an event, undeserved rewards, lying, betrayal: these are more difficult to make up and this is the point where guilt becomes a more prominent issue. We can strive to make amends, but if we are unable to or feel that our reparations are not enough, we may to take the rest out on ourselves. It’s called self-punishment.
Self-punishment occurs in many ways. In a 2007 study, researchers found that often people who feel guilty will self-punish by depriving themselves of pleasure or inflicting harm on themselves. They call this The Dobby Effect. For those who have never read the Harry Potter series, Dobby is a magical creature, a house-elf, that is bound by magic to obey his master’s every command. If a house-elf does not obey, they are forced to punish themselves. For example, at various points through the books, Dobby is known to do everything from hit himself in the face to ironing his hands or shutting his ears in the oven door.
At first glance, these actions seem comical. It seems ridiculous that someone would go to such extreme measures as self-mutilation simply because they disobeyed a command. Well, about 1 in 6 people purposefully injure themselves every year, and for reasons much less than disobeying an enchantment. For most, the reason is exaggerated, if there is a reason at all.
That’s the problem with depression and guilt. It goes too far. When you feel trapped in your guilt, self-punishment may feel like the only way out. If you can deprive yourself of something for longer, or if you can cause yourself enough pain, then maybe the feeling will go away.
Many people scoff at self-mutilators, saying they are only seeking attention. I’ve even heard this from physicians. The truth is, physical pain can dissuade feelings of guilt. This is not a new idea. The Catholic church has been condoning the practice of self-flagellation for over 1,000 years. Pope John Paul II was even known to practice it in order to absolve his sins. So if the Pope can do it and be praised for his devotion, why can a teenage girl not be pitied for doing the same for guilt that shouldn’t exist? Even if it is a call for attention, that person needs attention, and your attention could end up saving a life.
If you or someone you know is suffering from self-punishment due to extreme or unnecessary guilt, this is a serious sign of depression, and you should get help. Now is the time to make changes and begin to free yourself from the nagging in your head.