I am an eternal Potterhead. I have been a huge fan of the Harry Potter series since my childhood. J.K. Rowling, the author of this series, experienced depression before and during writing the Harry Potter series, and, perhaps, that is the reason why the series has been found to be filled with various metaphors for concepts and themes around mental health.
A quick warning for those reading further – this post does contain spoilers from the Harry Potter series beginning with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – the first time we meet Dobby, the house-elf.
When we first meet Dobby in the second book of the series, he is described as a pitiful creature constantly abused by the family he is bound to serve. Since his communication with Harry is forbidden, every time he speaks to Harry, he harms himself.
“Sit down,” said Harry politely, pointing at the bed. To his horror, the elf burst into tears – very noisy tears.
“S-sit down!” he wailed. “Never … never ever. . . “
Harry thought he heard the voices downstairs falter. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I didn’t mean to offend you or anything -“
“Offend Dobby!” choked the elf. “Dobby has never been asked to sit down by a wizard – like an equal-“
Harry, trying to say “Shh!” and look comforting at the same time, ushered Dobby back onto the bed where he sat hiccoughing, looking like a large and very ugly doll. At last he managed to control himself, and sat with his great eyes fixed on Harry in an expression of watery adoration.
“You can’t have met many decent wizards,” said Harry, trying to cheer him up.
Dobby shook his head. Then, without warning, he leapt up and started banging his head furiously on the window, shouting, “Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!”
“Don’t – what are you doing?” Harry hissed, springing up and pulling Dobby back onto the bed – Hedwig had woken up with a particularly loud screech and was beating her wings wildly against the bars of her cage.
“Dobby had to punish himself, sir,” said the elf, who had gone slightly cross-eyed. “Dobby almost spoke ill of his family, sir . . . .”
“The wizard family Dobby serves, sir… Dobby is a houself – bound to serve one house and one family forever . …..”
“Do they know you’re here?” asked Harry curiously.
Dobby shuddered. “Oh, no, sir, no … Dobby will have to punish himself most grievously for coming to see you, sir. Dobby will have to shut his ears in the oven door for this.
– Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling)
Every time Dobby does not live up to the expectations of his masters (the family he serves), he injures himself. I will admit here that the first time I read this, I thought Dobby was comical. As a twelve-year old girl, punishment felt like a horrible thing which an adult was allowed to give to a child – not being able to go out with your friends and play just because you scored poorly in your test because you did not study felt like the most cruel thing in the world, and I am sure I was not the only twelve-year old who felt that way! So, to the twelve-year-old version of me, Dobby was ridiculous…Who goes to such extreme measures just because they disobeyed some command or order?
Well, no one is twelve years old forever. We all grow up. And while our younger selves may have vowed never to treat anyone with such inhumanity as bestowing upon them cruel punishments, the older versions of us realize that punishment is just a mechanism to keep us in order and ensure that we turn out to be fine, upstanding citizens. And many of us, as we grow up, we start over-correcting ourselves and we start punishing ourselves when we engage in acts that we feel are wrong and, therefore, feel guilty for the same.
We all practice partiality when it comes to emotions. There are some emotions we love feeling and then there are some emotions we do not like feeling at all. For most people, guilt is their least favourite emotion. However, guilt is actually a good thing. When we wrong someone and are met with negative emotions, it makes us develop a moral compass and encourages us to make the right choices in life. People who do not experience guilt or remorse for their actions that harm others may often meet the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Guilt, however, works best in moderation. If we overdo it, the emotion goes from pro-social to self-destructive – just like Dobby whose guilt is not just excessive but also many a time inappropriate.
What are the situations that give rise to the feeling of guilt?
What would you do if you lost your friend’s cricket ball while playing? Perhaps, just replace it with another and no harm done.
Unfortunately, it’s not simple issues like these that give rise to guilt. Missing out on events, feeling like one does not deserve the credit or reward, lying, betraying someone (intentionally or otherwise) – these are more difficult to make up, and this is the point where guilt emerges as a prominent issue. We can strive to make amends, but if we are unable to or feel that our amendments are not enough, we, like Dobby, may end up taking it out on ourselves. This act is called self-punishment or The Dobby Effect.
According to Nelissen and Zeelenberg (2009), when the ability to compensate for an offense is not possible, a person is more likely to inflict punishment on themselves. In two separate experiments, Nelissen and Zeelenberg were able to show that when a compensation outlet is not available, guilt causes people to either deny themselves a pleasure activity or subject themselves to a penalty. In the first experiment, the researchers asked participants to imagine they had just failed a fall semester final exam as senior undergraduate and would have to retake the course either in the spring or the following year (which would cost their parents unforeseen tuition money). Those who failed the test because they “did not study” and could only retake the course the following year indicated they were much less likely to want to join their friends on a winter ski trip than those who could take the course in the spring. In the second experiment, individuals played a computer game where correct answers earned points for a fellow participant (a computer) who supposedly was doing the same in return. When the game was rigged such that the real participant only earned 20 points compared to their partner’s 80 points, they were more likely to impose a high deduction score upon their own wrong answers in the subsequent round. Thus, when given no opportunity to make up for the low scores they obtained for their “partner,” individuals were more likely to punish themselves.
I lost a friend of mine to suicide almost eleven years ago. The guilt that stayed with me for not having recognized the signs and for not having done enough, and for not being a good enough friend haunted me for years. I punished myself by not just filling myself with negative self-talk of being a horrible person and feelings of unworthiness and not being deserving, but also depriving myself of things that gave me joy and pleasure.
Since childhood, we are shaped into viewing our guilt as deserving of pain. The belief that self-reproach can can wash away sins is present in virtually any culture (think about the asceticism in ancient Greece and Indian religions, the harakiri in feudal Japan and the concept of penance in the Roman Catholic tradition). Each year, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in self-injury and approximately two million cases of self-injury are reported annually in the United States of America alone. For most, if there is a reason at all for practicing self-harm, the reason is highly exaggerated. Just like Dobby’s reasons for ironing his hands or shutting his ears in the oven-door were highly exaggerated.
When trying to understand guilt, it is important to realize that guilt need not be the most rational thing, and sometimes, it can go too far. For someone engulfed with the emotion of guilt, sometimes, self-punishment may feel like the only way out.
Many people scoff at self-mutilators, saying they are only seeking attention. I’ve even heard this from physicians. However, research studies have shown that physical pain can dissuade feelings of guilt (Bastian et.al, 2011). Also, even if it is a call for attention, it means that the person needs attention and getting that attention could make all the difference in the world to them!
Dobby, once freed from the Malfoy family and, as a free elf, working in Hogwarts as per his own terms and conditions got a confidence-boost and his friendship with Harry Potter enabled him to overcome his internal battles. In every interaction that happened between Harry Potter and Dobby, Harry Potter, time after time, restrained Dobby from harming himself, and while some may argue that their relationship was restricted to Harry giving Dobby an occasional present or asking him for favours, they did have a bond formed between them of mutual respect and empathy. Having lived with his aunt and uncle in the early years of his childhood, Harry Potter was no stranger to knowing what years of abuse could do to someone. Dobby and Harry both grow in perseverance and emotional strength, largely with one another’s help.
When Harry’s life is in danger, Dobby frees Harry and his friends from the clutches of his former masters, the Malfoys without any hesitation and without the need to hurt himself. While he is able to save Harry, Dobby ends up sacrificing himself. However, in the end, Dobby dies a free elf as engraved on his tombstone – free of his guilt, free of all the internal turmoil, and in the arms of his dearest friend.
If you feel you identified with the Dobby Effect, do not hesitate from seeking help. Dobby got his freedom the day Harry Potter tricked Lucius Malfoy into giving Dobby a sock. Just like Dobby got his freedom, give yourself that metaphorical sock today! Gift yourself that freedom from the cycle of guilt and self-punishment. You’ve got this!
Bastian, Brock & Jetten, Jolanda & Fasoli, Fabio. (2011). Cleansing the Soul by Hurting the Flesh: The Guilt-Reducing Effect of Pain. Psychological science. 22. 334-5. 10.1177/0956797610397058.
Gluck, S. (2012, August 24). Self Injury, Self Harm Statistics and Facts, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, July 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-self-harm-statistics-and-facts
Nelissen, R. M. A., & Zeelenberg, M. (2009). When guilt evokes self-punishment: Evidence for the existence of a Dobby Effect. Emotion, 9(1), 118–122. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014540
Very well written Divya! I must say your explanations are very easy to understand and language used is simple. I agree if people harm themselves excessively they should see a doctor urgently.
Thank you Rashmi!