Examine the patterns of your own self-harming behaviors
*Content warning: Self-harm*
Have you ever self-harmed? Do you do so now? And do you know what form your self-harming takes? Because self-harm does not need to literally entail cutting or otherwise physically harming yourself. You might have various habits and behaviors that involve no visible physical damage whatsoever but are still harmful to yourself. These count too, of course.
And if you answered ‘yes’ to the above, then the next important thing to figure out for yourself is when and why you do it.
I’m going to write about this very briefly, just skim the surface of this topic. And then you can, at your own pace and by your own means, get deeper into this as it relates to your own life. And I’m no doctor or academic, but I can always speak to my own experiences, which are all valid and real.
When I was in high school, there was a period of about a year when I would literally cut myself. I had one of those Swiss army knives with multiple tools on it — and yes, I could take it to school! It was such a different era back then. But that was what I had, and so I used the knife that was on there to cut deep gashes in my arms, on the biceps. I had to apply a lot of pressure because the knife was so dull.
Since I had the knife with me wherever I went, I could cut myself whenever and wherever I had the privacy to do it. I usually would cut at home, but I can remember doing it at school too. I can remember doing it one time while waiting for my brother to get out of some activity after school — I was just bored at that time, and simply decided to cut myself.
These wounds left scars in straight, parallel lines. They were very visible, and it was obvious to others at a glance where those scars had come from (and yet, hardly anybody besides my closest friends had anything to say about it). A few of these scars still remain today, actually, almost 20 years later. Did I want people to notice them? Perhaps, maybe. But if anyone had seriously tried to help me then, I’m not sure what would have come of it or what I would have said to them. And yes, my scars were of course visible to all the teachers at school, but I never got referred to the office or anything like that.
I got through high school and went out into the world. Life went on. I was doing new things, having new experiences, living in new places, and dealing with new problems and challenges too. I had my ups and downs, and a few really rough spots where I hit rock bottom. I wasn’t cutting myself during these times … but I was still self-harming, because I would overindulge in drugs and alcohol.
Because self-harm doesn’t have to literally take the form of cutting or other physical injury that leaves scars. Anything you do to yourself that hurts you, that you know hurts you, that you know is ‘shooting yourself in the foot,’ a self-inflicted setback … all of that is self-harm. So self-harm could take the form of binging on alcohol to the point of vomiting your guts out, passing out somewhere you shouldn’t, or worst of all, saying or doing something to somebody you care about that you will seriously regret, maybe even regret forever.
Or self-harm could take the form of binge eating. You know that you shouldn’t down entire tubs of ice cream, whole pizzas, liters and liters of soda, etcetera etcetera, all in one weekend. That does nothing for you, and not only that but it’s going to leave you feeling like crap, in addition to other setbacks such as getting knocked off your diet plan (if any) or causing yourself chronic health problems down the road if you continue to do this frequently. It’s a self-inflicted setback, it’s a self-harm.
But why (and when) do we do these things? I can only speak for myself here … and yet I’ve also detected a common, recurring theme when talking to others about this.
I had to ponder this question earlier this year, when I started self-cutting again briefly, over the summer. Yes, after being out of high school for well over a decade, I found myself self-cutting again at the age of 34. “This again?” I thought. “Why? I thought I’d moved past this a long time ago!” But over the course of about a week, I found myself in the bathroom more than once, looking into the mirror so I could accurately guide the camping knife I was cutting with (this time I was doing it on my chest, so the scars would be covered up by a shirt most of the time).
Well, when you’re asking yourself an important question, and connecting the dots of the patterns of your life, you need to keep going with those questions, and continue pondering them over the days until you reach an answer. And I realized for myself that I cut myself to let out my emotional pain, by means of physical pain.
Because physical pain I could deal with just fine. I could take plenty of it, and then take more, no problem. But it was emotional pain that I was having a problem with — that is what has always hurt me the most, and it continues to be this way now. In this case it was the emotional pain of rejection. Rejection, perceived or real, is very painful and hard to deal with, and it hurts. On top of that, there’s guilt that comes with it too. I feel like I must have been rejected for something that’s my fault, and therefore I’m furious at myself for it, and feel the need to punish myself. And that is how I started from a (perceived, in this case!) rejection and got to the point of cutting myself a few times that week.
And physical pain does allow me to let out that emotional pain … temporarily. Because physical pain hurts (DUH!), so I can focus on *feeling* that for the moment instead of what’s really hurting me: Rejection. But soon enough that physical pain fades, and the emotional pain returns to the forefront. It always does. And when that happened, I realized I was just stuck with the original emotional pain, plus a new physical wound as well. I was literally, objectively-speaking, worse off in every way. I had created a lose-lose situation for myself. And so, I knew that no matter how badly the pain of rejection felt, there was no amount of physical pain I could inflict on myself to make that go away; furthermore, it was futile and counter-productive anyway. It was shooting myself in the foot.
As for when I cut back in high school, my parents were fighting during that time, my dad was hitting my mom over a period of a few months. It’s hard for a kid to witness that, to live in an environment with that kind of violence going on. As for what kinds of emotions I was feeling at the time, I don’t know (because I haven’t reflected on these events in full as of yet), but the disfunction in my family did hurt me enough to the point where I would self-harm as a kind of release. Emotional hurt was building up inside me and I had to ‘vent some steam,’ so as not to blow my stack. The issues with my family at this time of course being in addition to all the other difficulties that came with being a teen in high school.
When I realized what my self-harm was, I stopped. I had connected the dots between the two similar incidents that happened at two different times during my life. I now understood for myself why I was self-harming, and I saw that it did nothing for me. I could also see that any kind of behavior where I would just say “f*** it!” and binge on things like drugs or alcohol just to ignore the way I was feeling was also self-harmful. We can’t drink, smoke, snort, inject, cut, or sex our emotional pain away — it will always come back. Any reprieve is temporary at best, if that.
Whatever negative emotion you feel stuck in, it will fade with some time, because emotions come and go. It’s near-impossible to believe that when you’re at emotional rock bottom, but trust that it’s true. You need to feel the heartbreak (etc.) and let it wash over you, so you can feel it and let it go, then eventually be happy again. In other words, you’ve got to face down your negative emotions, feel them and let them go, because you can never run from them or self-harm them away — they’ll always catch up to you in the end.
A few days after I came to these realizations, I saw an interview article with Willow Smith in which she talked about her own experience with self-harm (link: https://people.com/movies/willow-smith-opens-up-about-self-harm-and-why-she-stopped-cutting-herself/). I saluted her for talking about this subject (which still has stigma around it and makes some people uncomfortable) while being a public figure with a fanbase and all of that. I thought it was quite brave of her. But the point that she made was once she saw her own self-worth and began to love herself, she didn’t want to harm herself any longer. Yes, you’ve got to love yourself. That’s another vital thing, and it’s a whole ‘nother article, because it’s harder for some of us than you might realize. It’s a process. But one that’s well worth it.
I hope that relating my experiences might be helpful for someone out there to consider their own actions. Before you take some self-harmful action, take a minute to think about why you’re doing it, and what you’re going to gain from it … hopefully you will think twice, and see the futility of it. You’ll be objectively better off without self-harming, no matter how bad the emotional pain you’re feeling at the moment is. And stopping the self-harm is a vital step on the path towards genuinely loving and respecting yourself.
Would you do to others what you do to harm yourself? In my case no, of course I wouldn’t! No one deserves to get cut by me … including me. Once that really hit home, a lot of things changed. Stop your self-harm now, whatever form it takes. So many other things will start to fall into place for you once you do. But most importantly of all, you deserve better.