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.