I admit it. I have an interest in self-harm. I feel almost guilty for saying it – as if I’m admitting to having a morbid curiosity in an inappropriate and forbidden subject. But that’s simply indicative, I think, of the fact that it’s hard to escape the feeling that self-harm is a taboo subject, even within the mental health community, and amongst those for whom it is very much a part of life.
I remember one occasion, soon after a fellow BPD blogger and I started corresponding outside the context of blog-posts, when we hesitantly started to explore the subject of self-harm in our messages, and to ask each other questions. It was clear that we were interested in the other person’s self-harm – how, where, why – but at the same time felt uncomfortable and guilty for being so curious. But it was also clear that we both felt a profound sense of relief (and almost of liberation and excitement) at being able to talk about this so personal of subjects, with someone else who really understood, and didn’t judge. Our ‘morbid curiosity’ was born simply out of a desire to know that we were not alone, that we were accepted and acceptable, and to try and understand more about what self-harm meant to each of us, and what it means to others.
Many of those who self-harm feel a sense of guilt, shame or self-loathing at doing so. Those feelings can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle in which more self-harm is used to try and cope with the intense negative feelings about one-self, associated with the act of self-harming. These negative feelings can be compounded by fears about how others might react to, or perceive, the behaviour, and the fact that self-harming carries a great deal of stigma within our society.
I am very thankful that I do not personally suffer a sense of guilt or shame at my self-harm, and I feel a huge sense of compassion for those who do. I do understand the cycle of negative feelings leading to more self-harm, although in my own case, these tend to be feelings of immense frustration and failure when self-harm ‘doesn’t work’ in adequately dealing with the feelings it was meant to address. I also understand the fear of stigma and lack of understanding from others, and this was brought home to me in a powerful way by the reaction of a friend of mine, when I admitted to her that I am an active self-harmer. Her shock, shocked me. The fact that, on the basis of this one revelation, she felt that she no longer knew me (although indeed, she didn’t) – shocked me. I still find it hard to fully understand others’ reactions to self-harm. I’m not in any way advocating self-harm, or trying to undermine the immense and courageous efforts of those who struggle daily to stay free of it. It’s just that, although it sounds somewhat bizarre, for me personally it felt like such a logical way to cope with pain. It still does.
However, I know, even if I cannot fully understand, that self-harm does indeed elicit strong reactions from others, and that those reactions are often based on fear, ignorance, and misconceptions. And my own experience of that ignorance and misconceptions, in the context of a supposedly ‘safe’ therapeutic environment, has given me a strong desire to write about self-harm, and to try, in my own small way, to address those views, and to help others understand.
And not just those ‘on the outside’, but those who self-harm as well. My own understanding of ‘my hobby’ (as a very accepting friend of mine describes it) has been greatly helped by reading both personal experiences and research studies of self-harm. Although I don’t feel great guilt at self-harming, perhaps it is testament to my innate perfectionism and my sensitivity to invalidation, that I have felt very troubled, in the past, by the sense that I wasn’t ‘doing it right’. That if my self-harming didn’t fit a particular stereotype, then it wasn’t ‘real’ self-harming at all (and therefore, by implication, neither was my pain, or my diagnosis, real). Reading about others’ diverse experiences of self-harm has helped me to feel less alone, and to really appreciate that self-harm means different things to different people, and different things to the same person, at different times.
I want to write about the misconceptions. About the view that self-harm is a ‘young person’s phenomenon’; that it is manipulative or attention-seeking; that it is a failed suicide attempt. About the view that self-harm is always impulsive; that the pain inflicted is proportional to the pain felt; and that one can simply ‘choose to stop’ self-harming.
I want to write about the motivations. About the need for comfort and control; the desire to punish, either oneself or others; the desire to either feel more, or to feel (or think) less, or nothing at all; the ‘silent scream’ or cry for help. About the experience of wanting to ‘make the inner, outer’, and to give mental distress a physical form; the habitual nature of self-harm and how it can become part of one’s identity; and the fear of not self-harming, which can lead to pre-emptively self-harming in order to cope with upcoming, rather than present, stresses.
But for the moment, I just want to say this.
I admit it. I have an interest in self-harm. And for the sake of the thousands of those who suffer, in one way or another, and who use self-harm to both express and cope with that suffering – I hope that you do too.
June 11, 2014 at 11:32 am
I have self harmed for many year’s now and i thought i could stop but it’s like anything when u start smoking it hard to stop it becomes an addiction that i would rather give up but it is very hard to quit when i helps with stress
June 12, 2014 at 11:41 pm
Hi, thank you for reading and for commenting, and I’m sorry you are struggling with this. I do agree that essentially, self-harm is a coping mechanism, and you can’t just give up without replacing that coping mechanism with something else, hopefully, ultimately, something less self-destructive. Are you in therapy of some kind, or have any other mechanisms been suggested to you? Take care…
July 22, 2014 at 12:21 pm
I find it incredibly confusing that self-harm and suicidal thoughts are taboo topics even in therapy — the idea that there is nothing painful enough in the world to induce or explain/justify self-harm is ludicrous to me — everything in this world is enough to make one want to self-harm/end it all — thanks for a great post.
July 27, 2014 at 8:18 pm
Thank you so much for your comment. I too struggle with understanding others’ perceptions of self harm -on one level I can appreciate how distressing it must be for the loved ones of someone who hurts themselves, and I can accept that it’s not a healthy coping mechanism. However, it still feels, to me, like a ‘logical’ way of coping with pain. And I completely agree that it can be not only confusing, but incredibly damaging if self-harm is not lovingly handled in a therapy situation. It should be possible to talk about self-harm openly in therapy, without feeling judged and while still feeling accepted. This doesn’t mean the therapist has to agree with it or like the fact that it’s happening, but it shouldn’t get in the way of positive unconditional regard, and it definitely shouldn’t be taboo. It is incredibly sad that this is still sometimes the case. It sounds as though you have experienced this yourself, in therapy – if so, I am so sorry this is the case, and I hope there is someone you can talk to about it. I’m more than happy to listen, please do reach out at any time, and I hope you get the support you need, not just through the blogging community, but also within your local community and from health care providers. If this is not the only area where you feel you can’t be open with your therapist, are there options open to you, in terms of trying to work with someone else? I know this isn’t always possible, particularly if you are in a position of being able to receive free therapy….Thank you again for your kind words..
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