views updated


Self-punishment (or the "need for punishment") is a tendency, postulated by Freud, which drives certain subjects to inflict suffering upon themselves and search out painful situations, for the purpose of neutralizing a feeling of unconscious guilt. In the framework of the second topography of the psychic apparatus, Freud later attributed self-punishment to the activity of an especially intransigent superego, to which the ego submits.

Freud utilized the two notions "need for punishment" and "self-punishment" throughout his work. The emphasis in the former was on the feeling of unconscious guilt, and on the masochism proper to the ego, which demands punishment, whether it comes from the superego or from the outside, whereas the latter stressed the punishing activity of the superego, to which the ego submitsthe superego in turn draws its energy from the reversal of sadism into auto-sadism. Punishment then was applied with no recourse to an external object, through the intervention of internal topographical duality of the ego-superego.

Very early in his career, Freud began noticing a certain number of phenomena and symptoms which conveyed a dimension of self-punishment. In manuscript N (May 31, 1897, in 1950a) he discussed the question of symptom formation and postulated that it constituted a compromise between the libido and the desire for punishment, based on hostile feelings towards the parents: "The motives of libido and of wish-fulfillment as a punishment then act by summation." In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), he distinguished certain "punishment dreams," whose punitive value allows the lifting of censorship and thereby the realization of certain desires.

Subsequently, the whole field of pathology and all the suffering connected with it came to be looked at through the perspective of self-punishment, whose goal was to satisfy feelings of unconscious guilt:

  • in obsessional neurosis, where self-reproach and self-punishing behavior were connected to repressed, aggressive, hostile, and cruel feelings.
  • in melancholia, where the self-punishment compulsion can lead to suicide. In a fit of melancholia there is introjection of the lost object and the possibility of unleashing sadism against the object. Without introjection, the guilt of the melancholic prevents the sadism from emerging. After the introjection the sadism can reign unchecked because it is also an attack on the subject, becoming self-punishment (1916-17g [1915]).

Within the second topography, Freud attributed to the superego the punitive role to which the ego submits, and culpability became a tension between the two entities. He emphasized also that some behavior can be motivated by the quest for punishment. For example, the transgressing subject, by obtaining punishment, is looking to gratify a desire for masochistic satisfaction (1928b [1927]). Freud was especially interested in what he called the negative therapeutic reaction, where the repressed sadism of the patient inclines him to sabotage the cure, combining revenge against the therapist with self-punishment.

More recent works have attempted to distinguish more clearly between guilt and moral masochism. Schematically, it can be averred that in neurotic guilt, the sadism of the superego is in control, while in moral masochism, the ego eroticizes the feeling of guilt. The desire for punishment is then resexualized in a regressive way, becoming the source of masochistic satisfactions.

Bertrand Étienne and Dominique Deyon

See also: Aimée, case of; Castration complex; "Dostoyevsky and Parricide"; Guilt, feeling of; Moral masochism; Suicide; Superego.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Parts I and II. SE, 4-5.

. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.

. (1928b [1927]). Dostoevsky and parricide. SE, 21: 173-196.

. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

M'uzan, Michel de. (1972). Un cas de masochisme pervers. In La Sexualité perverse. Paris: Payot.

Nacht, Sacha. (1971). Le transfert. In Guérir avec Freud (pp. 41-43). Paris: Payot. (Original work published 1965)

Rosenberg, Benno. (1991). Masochisme mortifère et Masochisme gardien de la vie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Further Reading

Fenichel, Otto. (1928). The clinical aspect of the need for punishment. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 9,47-70.

Roth, Bennett. (2000). The piano: A modern film melodrama about passion and punishment. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17, 405-413.