NOTE: This article is taken from the PsychCentral Blog. The 2007 study referenced is included at the end of the article.
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 [NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, if the house-elves (i.e. monastic disciples) disobey a command, they are forced to punish themselves with various forms of hardship. Once, a nun would not stop talking and Geronda Ephraim told her to go sew her mouth shut. She went to her cell, took her sewing kit and sewed her mouth shut. It is unknown if she sterilized the needle first. She came back, showed Geronda Ephraim her mouth sewn shut and he marveled at her precision in obedience. Interestingly, sewing one’s mouth shut is popular among the BDSM community, much like Fr. George Passias’ foot and cake crush fetish].
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. [NOTE: The Orthodox Church has various saints that have performed extreme measures of self-harm in an attempt to hinder themselves from falling into sin. These acts are lauded as heroic feats pleasing to God. In their hagiographies it is usually noted that after performing such acts of self harm or self-mutilation, God’s grace alleviated the warfare they were experiencing, or removed it altogether. Examples of such extreme measures are (1) St. Benedict, who cast himself into a thorn bush while naked to escape the wily temptation of a woman; (2) St. Martinian of Caesaria who placed his hand in fire in order not to fornicate with a woman. It is interesting to note that many of the holy acts of self-harm found in the Synaxarion are also prevalent in BDSM, and body modification communities].
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. [NOTE: In the monasteries, sometimes one’s misdemeanors become like a caste mark on their forehead. Though one is absolved of their misdemeanors, they become their defining characteristic. These disobediences often become the topic of conversation among monastics (this especially occurs when monastics visit other monasteries and gossip/idle talk about such incidents). Like an invisible mark of Cain, a monastic’s misdemeanors can follow them for the rest of their monastic life. This happens via gossip, mockery, forced public confession in front of the group, private shaming, public shaming and/or repeated rebukes incorporating these things. That is of course, if they aren’t driven from the monastery].
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. [NOTE: The practice of self-flagellation seems to have been unknown in Europe until it was adopted by the hermits in the monastic communities of Camoaldoli and Fonte Avellana early in the 11th century. Once invented, the new form of penance spread rapidly until it had become not only a normal feature of monastic life throughout Latin Christendom but the commonest of all penitential techniques. In the 20th century, Elder Joseph the Hesychast incorporated it as a necessary part of daily monastic life in his synodia and claimed, “The cane is the remedy for every passion.” Flagellation was incorporated as a disciplinary measure in the earliest monastic communities, but later fell out of use. Both flagellation and self-flagellation are quite popular in the BDSM community–sadists love to hit and masochists love to be hit]
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. [NOTE: In Orthodox Monasticism–also called voluntary imprisonment and slavery by the Church Fathers–the only help offered to a disciple, is frequent frank confession (which in many of the busier monasteries does not happen too often. Confession is supplemented with writing sins/thoughts down on paper, then slipping it under the superior’s door, or placing it in a common box. This box is accessible to other monastics, some who have the private pleasure of reading other peoples’–i.e. lay people or monastics‘–confessions). Confession to a priest, battling one’s thoughts, and the frequent, rapid yelling of the Jesus Prayer in an attempt not to allow any thoughts or images to form in one’s mind, are considered the only true psychotherapy. The belief is that “Orthodox Psychotherapy” is the only practice capable of healing one from guilt, depression and any other mental illness in existence. In some severe cases of mental illness, exorcism prayers will be read over the individual].
The Dobby effect
The authors suggest that people subconsciously seek out pain to relieve their guilt. Rob Nelissen at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who wasn’t involved in the study, has previously described a guilt-induced tendency to seek punishment as the “Dobby effect” – named after Harry Potter’s self-punishing house-elf.
He says that self-punishment might relieve guilt by functioning as “a signal by which a transgressor shows remorse to his or her victim when there are no other less painful means available, such as giving a bunch of flowers”.
“In line with this view, excessive forms of self-punishment could be perceived as a consequence of unresolved guilt,” Nelissen adds.
Journal reference: Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797610397058