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What does It Mean to be a "Glutton for Punishment"?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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To be a glutton for punishment is an idiom that means to willfully take on difficult or disagreeable tasks that may be very uncomfortable. The word "glutton" tends to mean overeating, and originates in Latin with the related words gluttus which means greedy, and gluttires which is translated as to swallow. The word gula may be similarly related and translates as throat.

In most cases, being the term "glutton" in this phrase is different than being gluttonous. Gluttony in general is one of the deadly sins, since people who eat too much, greedily and often are most interested in themselves (according to those who track sins in this manner). Being a glutton for punishment usually means that the person welcomes difficulties and may be accepting requests or tolerating difficult circumstances to please others. It is more other-motivated than self-motivated.

The phrase is frequently said wryly and jokingly. Most people have a variety of reasons for persevering despite obstacles, or for inviting that annoying brother-in-law to a golfing afternoon or a critical mom on the family vacation. It isn’t so much that most people actually crave punishment or hard times, but many people find that it’s occasionally necessary to undergo difficult things to make life better for themselves or others. While the individual may have to listen to the annoying brother-in-law talk endlessly about his job for a few hours, it may make his sister feel more happy. Similarly, taking another job on at work when an employee is already pressed for time might make his boss happy, which could benefit him in the long run.

Interestingly, some people do seem to become almost gluttonous in their desire to be perceived as martyrs. A true glutton for punishment may want to constantly seem overburdened so they will evoke the pity of others, and they may take on far too much. People also might overextend themselves because they have difficulty saying no to people they respect or love. In this case, learning to set limits so as not to choose misery for the sake of pleasing others is probably a very good idea.

On the other hand, some people actually feel most alive and thrilled when they are overextended or at least working very hard most of the time. In which case, such a person is not truly living up to the sense of the idiom. If working hard is enjoyable, hard work can scarcely be considered a punishment.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon163248 — On Mar 27, 2011

I think I've just realized that I've been a glutton for punishment. In my case, I have a family that I love very much, but we have fundamental differences in our core values. I am a Christian, my family is not. I try to live my life according to Biblical values, my family does not. So of course, I'm treated like an outcast and yet I'm still trying to figure out how to be loved and accepted by them without compromising my Biblical values, and of course, they will not love and accept me unless I compromise my Biblical values and tolerate things like homosexuality, sleeping around, lying and other things occurring in the family. I don't know what to do. ---RocciGirl

By subway11 — On Feb 25, 2011

Moldova- I know that does happen. I think that I am a glutton for punishment when I have sugary foods like cookies and ice cream in my house when I am trying to lose weight.

I buy these things saying that it is for my family but I always end up eating some of it.

By Moldova — On Feb 24, 2011

Cupcake15 - I agree. It happens to women a lot because we are always seeking the approval of others and feel that if we don’t help out that we will not be liked.

When this happens, you should accept that you are human and accepted to do something that you could not do. Instead of getting mad just do it, and don’t complain about it because it was your choice.

I think that sometimes people seek out relationships that define the words glutton for punishment.

Sometimes it is in a friendship or in a relationship, but I see people that seek out the same abusive people over and over and I have to think that they are a glutton for punishment.

The old saying rings true, “If you hurt me once, shame on you, but if you hurt me twice, shame on me.”

The first time is understandable because sometimes people can charm us and we might be misled, but if it happens more than once then we are a glutton for punishment.

By cupcake15 — On Feb 21, 2011

I agree that sometimes people like to play the role of a martyr and therefore become a glutten for punishment.

Sometimes you see people that take on a lot of responsibility for something then complain that they have too much on their plate.

I think that these people like to be martyrs because they feel that they will be looked at in a superior fashion because they took on so much.

My sister can be a little like this. She is remarkably successful but sometimes has a problem saying no to people so she agrees to doing things that she later regrets because she really has too much to do.

I think that it is a matter of prioritizing your life so that you accept things that you want to be a part of and reject the things that you don’t have time for.

I think that giving yourself permission to say no sometimes is important. Oprah talks about this all of the time because she was also a people pleaser.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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