Life is hard enough to begin with. The idea that you would maliciously hurt yourself seems baffling. Unfortunately, in my years working as a psychologist, I have encountered a vast number of acts of self-mutilation. I am talking about bodily injury, where people, particularly female patients, choose to pick up a sharp object and scratch or stab themselves. The gashes are visible, bloody reminders of something angry.
It would be foolhardy to imagine that I could, in this blog post, explain all of the psychodynamics of “cutting.”
The reasons for self-mutilation are as varied as the individuals who attack themselves in this manner. I do, though, want to broach the subject, turning your attention this phenomenon, which has become more prevalent over the last few decades.
In particular, I have decided to expand on two conceivable causes behind the act of self-harm. The first are instances of mistreatment or abuse, even minor abuse. In these cases, it’s natural to have a strong physical and mental reaction towards the perpetrator. However, it is often not possible to express these feelings. The enemy may be a person in authority, family or otherwise, and confrontation is out of the question.
When aggression cannot be expressed, what happens to the strong urge to lash out? When one’s needs are denied or ridiculed, anger is the conventional response. Think of a child who is very frustrated because he has been told no. He will kick and scream, making it clear to the person who has thwarted him that he doesn’t agree with the policy.
As we get older, we have to pick and choose our battles, sometimes tiptoeing around so as not to make waves. When a large mass of anger and frustration builds up, it needs an outlet. Even if it cannot be directed at the proper object, it needs to be defused. Some will self-harm in a perverted effort to dignify, validate, give voice and credence to their pain.
The second category refers to anger toward oneself. Often, this anger is based in a person doing or saying or thinking something she considers bad. Some people, when they feel guilt and remorse, want to inflict punishment on themselves because they know the price they deserve to pay better than anyone else. This can even include anger at oneself for allowing someone else to hurt you.
I remember working with a lovely young woman who came to us for help with her addiction to watching porn on her cell phone. She came from a strictly religious background where even having a smart phone in her possession was considered sinful. It was unfathomable to her that she could stoop so low as to even get started with this kind of material.
It came out over the course of her treatment that we would also need to address her bulimia, addiction to over-the-counter pain pills, and a self-hatred so terrible it caused her to bang her head on the floor and walls. She felt such guilt, remorse and shame at her lack of control coupled with horror at the escalating nature of her obsession.
Our work together emphasized, above all else, the importance of love and forgiveness. There was no way to address her struggles with the cell phone if she could not accept failures in the process of spiritual refinement. In order to make true progress, she needed to remember that even saints have a past.
If you discover that you are habitually self-destructive, get some kind of help. Don’t be ashamed. You are most decidedly not alone. Self-destruction is as much an addiction as anything else out there.