4 Reasons why people Self-Harm.
Having trouble understanding why your loved one is engaging in self-harm?
(*Trigger warning: for those who suffer from self-harm*)
Self-harm is one of the hardest behaviours to understand when it comes to mental illness.
Most people can grasp the emotions and moods of someone experiencing a mental illness. Take Depression for example, extreme sadness is something that most people have experienced at one point in their lives. So there is at least some empathy for what going through a prolonged state of depression might feel like.
At least a lot more than when it comes to self-harm.
Since there is no reference point to it in our otherwise normal everyday lives, it's difficult to fathom why someone would self-harm. We are seldom confronted with someone who is cutting or burning or traumatising themselves on seemingly purposeful intention.
Yet it's scary to see someone suffering physically from what's supposed to be a mental or emotional affliction.
Complicating the matter is that self-harm often looks like a suicide attempt. We see a person cutting his or her wrist and take it as a sign of a suicide attempt. We might even question the truth when they deny that they were trying to kill themselves.
What are their motivations? Why are they doing this? Why can't they just tell me what's going on? It's really not an easy thing for a relatively normal person to understand.
If you or your loved one is going through this, here's four motivations why.
1) To feel something more tangible than purely emotional pain.
With many mental illnesses come along very chaotic emotions and thoughts. People who suffer from Major Depression or Personality Disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder are overwhelmed by powerful emotions most of the time.
Their inner world is turbulent, full of constant chatter of negative and often hurtful content. Sometimes, they want to focus their attention away from this inner world that is hard to grasp, and into their outer world - their physical environment.
Self-harm then becomes a very compelling behaviour, since it directs that attention toward actual physical sensations on their body. Basically, it overrides their thoughts and emotions, turning into something that can actually be physically located and felt.
It provides temporary relief for their mental pain.
2) To relieve feelings of numbness and feel something more physical.
For some disorders like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it comes about with a type of symptom known as dissociation.
Dissociation is a mental process of disconnecting from one's thoughts, feelings, memories and sense of identity.
It occurs, for example, in trauma when something has happened to a person that was so painful. Through the process of dissociation, they hide away and store memory of that event in a section of their mind different from the rest of themselves.
It makes their own experience feel like it's been chopped into bits, with some memory feeling like their own, while others seeming like they are viewing from a third-person perspective, much like watching a movie.
The outcome of dissociation is often a sense of numbness, like their body and mind is no longer their own. What people don't often realise is that numbness is also a painful feeling - as paradoxical as it sounds, it's painful to not feel anything.
They might choose to self-harm then, as a way to generate a strong physical sensation that brings them back to feeling something - especially when they are desperate to feel anything. Any sensation that makes them feel alive and themselves again.
3) To express the strong emotions that they are feeling.
Sometimes, with mental illness, it might be hard for people to describe their inner experiences. It might be because they are not skilled at it, or simply that it's impossible for them to describe it in words.
It might even be due to trauma, like in the above, where something is deeply disturbing them but they can't seem to pinpoint what that is, since it's been hidden away into a deep recess in their mind.
In such cases, when words are not available for people to describe their inner experience, they turn to express it physically. This is sometimes known as "acting out".
It might seem like an impulsive behaviour, and sometimes it really is. When words fail and the pain continually grows, inflicting wounds on oneself becomes a last resort to express their emotional pain to others.
It's sometimes also a cry for attention - not be taken negatively or as an "attention-seeking" behaviour purely. Just let me put it this way, it sounds a lot more like:
"I'm in so much pain, but I can't describe it. This is evidence of how much it hurts. Help me please".
4) To shame and punish themselves.
Lastly, some people self-harm as a way to punish themselves. For example, this is often seen amongst victims of abuse.
One of the effects of abuse is that the beliefs and perspectives of the abuser gets integrated into the victim's own mind. They start to judge themselves the same way the original abuser did, and take on the abuser's values as their own.
This is a defense mechanism, known as Introjection. Think of this way, when you get abused as a child and can't understand why you are getting physically or emotionally abused, what's the best way to explain what you're going through?
By taking the abuser's words and actions as the source of truth of course. That you're really as bad or not good as they claim you to be.
These errant beliefs can carry on into later life. These people might seem relatively okay in everyday life, but there might be times when they get overwhelmed and the self-shame becomes to much to handle.
In those cases, they turn to find a way to punish themselves, just like they were punished so many years ago, and start inflicting self-harm.
To those seeing a loved one self-harm.
I hope some of these reasons might help you to understand why your loved ones are engaging in such behaviours. It's a very difficult experience for you to go through, often traumatising in itself.
If your loved one hasn't seen a mental professional yet, please encourage them to see one. It'll help them relieve some of the tension and emotional pain they are going through, as well as resolve some of the enduring beliefs or traumas that are affecting their lives.
Also, seek help for yourself. It's not always easy to support someone going through such pain. Speak to someone you can trust, or even seek out some therapy for yourself to work through your feelings too.
Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul. Self-harm is a tough phenomenon to understand. I hope this has helped to enlighten things a bit. Send me an email if you need more information or some direction to get therapy.