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Understanding Self-Harming

The act of self harming is a much misunderstood condition. How could anyone possibly want to hurt themselves? And why? And is there a connection between suicide& self-harming? And how can anyone willingly inflict pain on themselves? Surely primary the human instinct for survival would over-ride actually wanting to harm oneself? But self-harming is a far from logical condition. In fact, many self-harmers have a kind of a sense of “pride” in their “cutting” skills.

However, self-harming is not limited to “cutting”. There is an almost endless list of ways in which, people who suffer from the condition, choose to inflict harm on themselves. Some of the more common, apart from cutting are burning, head banging, hitting body parts, scratching, poisoning and hair-pulling, to mention a few. However, if we really think about it, how far does self-harming go? And is it limited to physically harming the body? If you think about it, we could add the more “common” problems of alcoholism & drug addiction to this list .. Just a thought ..

Why would someone willingly harm themselves?

So why would anyone want to harm themselves? The answer, as can be expected, is not a straight forward one. The roots of deep-seated emotional distress, almost always lie in unresolved critical traumatic experiences which have occurred in the sufferer’s history.

A classic scenario would be a history of abuse – verbal, emotional or sexual. The problem arises in the form of hormones which the body releases in any situation that it perceives as dangerous (including abuse). In any “crisis situation” the body will trigger a flood of ‘fight or flight’ hormones by the adrenal glands. These hormones release a surge of intense energy, increasing our strength and pain threshold – giving us a natural “high” and focussed control. These heightened powers would give us the advantage of strength, agility & mind power to escape the danger situation.

The problem with continued abuse is that the victim could become accustomed, or‘addicted’ to the release of this adrenaline – this “high” – in his/her body. In fact, he might find life “numb” and “boring” without these“highs”. In fact, in order to get these “highs”, he could, consciously or unconsciously, actively seek stress situations – such as other abusive relationships, effectively self-sabotaging his life, in order to stimulate the release of more adrenaline. Such a person could be trapped in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour, unconsciously seeking abusive situations, or being accident-prone, in order to keep experiencing the adrenaline spike which makes him feel so super-alive. Or, he could, quite simply, choose self-harm as a way of facilitating the release of these “feel-alive” hormones.

However, it is not only the “spike” of an adrenaline ‘high’ that is the cause of self harming. Other reasons are wide and varied, including but not limited to:

  • A release from built-up anxiety and stress from being unable to cope with “normal” life.
  • A way to get “rid” or control unruly emotions such as anger / fear / guilt etc. The release felt by self-harming prevents them “spilling over” and “spiralling” out of control. Here self harm is used as a method of self-control. Cutting & self harm can, temporarily, bring sense of peace and calm.
  • As a way to feel something .. anything! Often when there has been trauma, the victim will “hide” from his feelings and emotions, unable to face them or know how to deal with them. Sometimes he is unable to face a painful truth (such as molestation by a close relative) & chooses to bury his memories in a sense of numbness. And sometimes, from all the abuse & trauma, he has reached the point of “numbness” and “deadness”. However, as this ‘burying” of emotions is done at a sub-conscious level in order to protect him from the pain of the memories, he is unaware this has happened. He might then start self harming as a way of feeling something / anything!
  • As a way of building a “safe” and “private” world which no one knows about – a “secret” which gives the sufferer a false sense of control over his life. Retreating from the world and creating a “barrier” between himself and the world.
  • Having a sense of “control” over his body & warding off a feeling of “doom” by thinking that if he self-harms, this will prevent something worse from happening.
  • Re-enacting circumstances or abuse either witnessed or experienced as a child. When children are exposed to damaging behaviour, this could colour the way they experience the world. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, such as alcoholic / abusive parents, the child has no valid reference point of “normal”, with which to compare this behaviour. While children are in the development stages, to them, whatever is happening around them, they believe to be “normal” behaviour. They could then grow up perpetuating the self harm as a means of continuing the abuse.
  • As a way of expressing self-hate or “self-punishing” himself/herself for being bad / not worthy .. etc There may be a childhood history of abuse and children often hold themselves responsible & blame themselves for things that happen, both to them, and to those around them (eg: it’s my fault daddy hit mommy because I was naughty & made daddy cross).

Common traits of self-injurers

Although every story & personality is different, there are certain “beliefs” or emotional “traits” which are more common amongst those who self-harm:

  • There is a tendency to think that their physical wounds, in some way, prove that their emotional pain is real. The sight of their own blood is an affirmation of “I exist” and makes them “feel real”. There is also a belief that if they self-harm, this is a kind of “protection” & that no greater harm will come to them. They feel they are, in essence, “safe”.
  • There seems to be a common thread of growing up in a house where the child is “not allowed” to express emotions. The result when grown up, is an inability to deal with strong feelings in a healthy & safe way.
  • There may be other emotional problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, eating disorder, substance abuse, or co-dependency. These are all problems with, and relating to control issues.
  • There may be very little, or no emotional support. Family may be unsympathetic or unsupportive, and often there is deep shame & guilt about the self-harm which may prevent the sufferer from making friends.

Myths & Facts about Self-Harm & Cutting

Due to the fact that cutting and self-harm are taboo subjects and tend to be swept under the carpet, there are several misconceptions about the condition.

Myth: Cutting / Self-harm means the persons is suicidal.

Fact: Most self-harmers do not want to die. Self-harming is a way to cope & continue living. It is a way to regain control of emotional pain. However, 40 – 60% of suicides have a history of self harming. This is mostly due to the fact that in most cases, the death is accidental, where self-harming got out of control.

Myth: People who self harm are unbalanced or “crazy”.

Fact: These are usually people who are dealing with trauma. They don’t have mental health problems. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are coping with their problems in the only way they know how.

Myth: Those who self injure are looking for “attention”.

Fact:People who self-harm generally try to hide what they are doing, as they feel a deep sense of shame and guilt about their actions. This is not an action of someone seeking attention – just the opposite!

Quotes from Self-Injurers

It may be difficult to understand why someone would want to self-harm, but when you hear the explanations & motivation behind the action, the picture may be clearer. Here are some direct quotes from those who self-harm:

“It wasn’t a suicide attempt; it was an escape from everything awful. When we cut, we’re ion control – we make our own pain and we can stop it whenever we want. Physical pain relieves mental anguish. For a brief moment, the pain of cutting is the only thing in the cutter’s mind, and when that stops and the other comes back, it is weaker. Drugs do that too, and sex, but not like cutting. Nothing is like cutting.”

“It expresses emotional pain or feelings that I’m unable to put into words. It puts a punctuation mark on what I’m feeling on the inside!”

“It’s a way to have control over my body because I can’t control anything else in my life.”

“I usually feel like I have a black hole in the pit of my stomach, at least if I feel pain it’s better than feeling nothing.”

“I feel relieved and less anxious after I cut. The emotional pain slowly slips away into the physical pain.”

A final thought concerning cutting and why it seems to make the victim feel temporarily better, has to do the release of adrenalin. The body & mind uses these strong hormones to cope with trauma – and that is what these “victims” are trying to do – cope – with what the victim perceives to be a “crazy world”.

The Result

Ultimately the cost of self harming is high to the sufferer:

  • A deep sense of shame /  guilt about the practice
  • A feeling of being out of control & feeling helpless – not being able to stop
  • Hiding the scars & wounds under clothing or cutting in places which can easily be hidden by clothing – hiding the scars & wounds
  • Isolation – not allowing anyone close because they might notice the scars & wounds
  • Fear of going too far and doing real damage: Ultimately – fear of self-inflicted death

Last Word

Self-harm is often a way to express deep distress and find a way to cope with painful memories. Sufferers may want to stop, but don’t know where to begin. The “high” obtained from self-harm is highly addictive. Perhaps starting the journey within to understand why, is the first step.

For those who suffer from self-harming – there is help

  • Hypnotherapy – for regression & resolving the problems at the root of the situation. Setting you free from the spiral of pain& self-harming & moving to healing and a healthy view of life.
  • SADAG – The South African Anxiety & Depression Group
  • Life Line – They will be able to refer you to a group / counsellor in your area

Written by: Sharon Dill C.Ht – Johannesburg Hypnosis (www.johannesburghypnosis.co.za)

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Leo Gopal February 12, 2013, 9:58 am

    A lot of things one does not automatically know, very informative and wonderful post Sharon! Thank you!

  • Hendrik Baird February 12, 2013, 10:13 am

    Great article Sharon, keep ’em coming!

  • June Stone February 12, 2013, 1:51 pm

    Thank you for this very helpful and informative article…this will help me in my practice.

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