People resort to self-harm when underlying emotions are overwhelming. Feeling so utterly alone and out of control, they’ll do anything to stop the torment of their feelings. Inflicting pain on the Self sometimes becomes the only reliable way to deal with unbearable experiences.
When we are babies, our mother’s soothe us and implicitly teach us how to soothe ourselves. When a parent, because of his or her own limits and traumas, is unable to soothe an infant, the infant becomes an adult who may lack the capacity to modulate emotions.
Experiencing childhood abuse or neglect of any kind, can also make it difficult for someone to soothe and calm themselves in the face of stress.
I teach my patients to eventually become their own good mothers learning to be compassionate to themselves while they take care of their feelings in a healthy way.
Renee’s problems began in childhood. When I met her, she told me she was nervous all of the time. She told me a part of her mind was constantly yelling at her, just like her father had yelled at her throughout her childhood.
“You’re a stupid little shit,” the male voice in her head would say.
She feared her emotions, feared others’ emotions, feared asserting, and feared feeling strong.
In the presence of people, her mind was completely preoccupied with their needs, as opposed to her own needs. She could not “hold on” to her Self. In fact, Renee found it almost impossible to know her own needs and wants.
Renee was extremely hard on herself. When I first met her, she resorted to self-harming behaviors such as cutting, burning and head banging to deal with her feelings.
She also felt she was a “bad person.”
The real and imagined anger of other people was a huge trigger and connected her back to earlier memories of her father’s rages. She could easily spiral into feelings of terror, rage, despair, and massive amounts of anxiety.
These feelings would come up quickly and were so excruciating that the only resource she had was to inflict pain on her own body to stop them.
The self-harming behaviors seemed to satisfy two purposes:
1) Self-punishment for her perceived badness; and
2) To stop overwhelming emotions from intensifying any further.
Attempting to Self-Soothe
Symptoms like cutting can be thought of as a person’s best attempt to self-sooth in the face of utter aloneness. Despite the fact that it is ultimately hurtful, the intention of the self-harming behavior is to help in some way.
Symptoms need to be appreciated for their good and adaptive intention—even when they are self-destructive and maladaptive.
Judging or stigmatizing anyone for their suffering only adds shame and makes people feel worse.
Time and time again, my patients are relieved when I share this positive understanding of their self-harming behaviors. I invite them to approach their behavior with a stance of curiosity and compassion for themselves.