--- - |2+ Abstract This study explores perceptions of why people punish themselves in response to feelings of moral failure. Experimental research has posited some of self‐punishment's functions, but it remains unclear whether the perceived motives and outcomes for those engaging in spontaneous self‐punishment are fundamentally distinct from those in experimental settings. This study explores and interprets laypersons’ experiences of their own self‐punishment, using qualitative and quantitative data collected in an online survey. Self‐punishers responded to a series of questions examining what kinds of self‐punishment behaviours they engage in and why, and their effects on emotions, cognitions, and relationships. Key themes identified via thematic analysis included self‐punishment as an emotion regulation strategy, as an opportunity to reflect and learn from the transgression, and the notion that self‐punishment becomes normalised. Analysis of these themes suggests that self‐punishment can reflect both psychological avoidance and resolution of problems, and that these two functions have different implications for reconciliation. Key message Our analysis of naturalistic self‐punishment experiences revealed dimensions of self‐punishment neglected in the empirical literature, in particular the notion of self‐punishment as an exploration (rather than an evasion) of one's guilt. - European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 48, Issue 6, Page 756-768, October 2018.