So why is it so hard to stop self-injury?
For many people, it is not.
Why is it so very very difficult to change self-destructive behavior? Why do people hurt themselves?
“Why can’t I stop hurting myself?”
I’ve been asked that a million times, if I’ve been asked that once.
I don’t think there is one simple answer for that. In fact I know there is not one simple reason. There are more likely to be 100 different reasons, probably more. Self injury goes much deeper than the surface behavior. The roots go deep into family patterns, learnings, and thinking processes.
My best guess is that the thinking for Self-Injurers varies some from person to person, and the reasons for holding so tightly to self-injury are as individual as the individuals themselves.
However, over the years, I have seen and heard some repeating patterns while sitting with dissociative trauma survivors who have long, long histories of self-injury, self-destruction, and self-abuse. I am guessing that some of these ideas might apply to several of you.
Here are only 12 of the behind-the-behavior reasons for why some people can’t stop hurting themselves:
1. Self-injury was taught even to the young child as a good thing to do.
In this situation, the young person was admired for how much pain they could withstand, and the longer they could sit with the pain without flinching or fussing, the more praise and accolades they received. Self directed injury was defined as a good thing, and the young student was rewarded for learning to do so. These teachings could come from simple everyday family patterns, or they could have been part of complex layers of mind control instructions. Teaching is teaching, and learning is learning. When people are taught to hurt themselves, they learn to hurt themselves, and they do it. Over and over, especially when they are rewarded for doing so. So it continues on for years of time until they learn something new.
2. In some families, self-injury is a much more acceptable or desired behavior in the family belief system than the expression of true emotion and genuine feeling.
So, for example, the person figures out that they can quietly cut or burn or purge themselves without getting in trouble, but they are severely chastised or punished if they are seen crying or yelling or quivering. Take the time to examine your family’s rules and beliefs. Do you still agree with these concepts? Do you have the courage to do something different from what your family expected of you? Are you willing to break old family rules?
3. In many dysfunctional relationships, the expression of feelings were so completely suppressed and not-allowed that the person learned to use SI as their “release” of feelings, instead of using healthier or more regular ways of expression.
They learned to use self-injury as their default method of emotional expression, and/or self-harm became the quickest way to reach emotional numbing, frantically but easily stopping as much feeling as quickly as possible. Reversing this process will take a lot of work, but it can be done. At this point in time, you can decide if you want to keep self-destructive patterns, or if you are willing to try natural means of expression. Are you willing to let yourself cry? If you could cry, would you allow it? Are you brave enough to show anger? Are you willing to sit with your own emotions and feelings without pushing them away?
Years of repetition are not easy to change, no matter the topic. They become second nature, and can happen before the person realizes it. Teaching the brain to do something new takes consistent, persistent, intense effort. Are you willing to let go of the “high” that comes with self the brain’s releases of chemicals after self injury? Teaching your body and your brain new behaviors can be a big job. You gotta really really really want to change in order to put in this much hard work. How hard are you willing to work at changing self-destructive behaviors? Are you willing to do what it takes to be healthier?
5. Fear of change.
This is probably based out of family learning too, but lots of dissociative insiders are really afraid to do or learn something new. “What if I get punished for doing something different from what I was taught to do?” Punished? Punished by who? Are there outside people in your life who would literally still punish you? If so, that’s an entirely big topic on its own because who are they and why do you still have contact with anyone that is violent or abusive or controlling of you in these harmful ways? Or, are you afraid of internal punishment? Why do those insiders still believe in physical punishment? Are you worried more about the past rules, and how many of these still apply in your everyday world today? What are you so afraid of and how can you address this fear without resorting to more self harm? These aren’t simple questions — they take a LOT of work to address them accurately.
6. Claiming or showing intense feelings of anger is so totally not-allowed, and / or so terrifying, that the person would genuinely rather use self-destructive behaviors instead of showing direct anger.
Anger is a tough emotion, especially for people who have spent a lot of time around abusive perpetrators who used anger in all the wrong ways. Feeling or showing anger does not have to equal being abusive. Having angry feelings does not make someone a predator. Separating the feelings of anger from abusive behaviors is an important part of allowing this natural feeling to surface without the “required” self abuse afterwards (or during). Why do you choose to self-harm instead of feeling or owning your anger? This too, is a very big question – take time to think about that one. What rules do you follow about having anger? Are these healthy rules?
7. Dissociation takes away the pain. Self-injury “doesn’t hurt”. “I can’t feel that.”
When a person has learned to dissociate pain, they don’t feel regular pain, not even self-injury. Without the “natural consequence” or the natural deterrent of pain , it is much harder to see the need to dislike or end or prevent self destructive behavior. For years of time, when long-neglected trauma survivors sit alone, trapped alone in their pain, even as young children, not receiving healthy comfort, those trauma survivors who were left alone in their pain learn to leave their pain any way they can. They dissociate from their body, which means dissociating away from the pain. Creating enough safety to stay in the body is important. And, finding healthy ways for comfort makes it more ok to sit with the reality of the hurts.
8. “I deserve punishment.” “I am bad.” “I don’t deserve kindness.” Or any other version of these negative, self-loathing thoughts.
When the underlying belief about the self changes to something more positive, and the need to punish – hurt – destroy the self will decrease accordingly. What will it take for you to have – earn – deserve – accept – expect to receive respect, kindness, gentleness, and caring for yourself? Selves? How rational are your beliefs about punishment? How much are they based on the past of decades ago, versus being genuinely applicable to today? Challenge yourself. Maybe just maybe you don’t need to be punished anymore. Maybe you aren’t nearly as bad as you believe yourself to be.
9. “I need to feel real or alive.” “The only way I feel real is if I see blood, or feel pain.”
These folks are typically so separated from their body, so separated from their selves, so depersonalized and detached, that they need some visual proof that they are not plastic or fake. Are there other ways that you can experience being alive? What can you do to waken your senses without having to hurt yourself or your body?
10. “It’s just the body. The body doesn’t matter.”
Ouch. Okay, I get the point. The heart, mind, spirit and soul hurt more than the body, and yes, on that level, the most important parts of yourself stay more deeply protected by the outer surface of the body. And insiders can separate and dissociate from the body anyway, and insiders have their own inside bodies, so yes, the connection with the outside body itself is a big topic all of its own. The body means something differently to the dissociative survivor than to others who cannot leave their body so easily. Separating from the body had its advantages. While this thinking has helped many survivors get through the pain of abuse, keeping this thinking allows the same disrespect of your body to continue. When can the body earn its place of respect as well? When can the body no longer be abused or traumatized or injured unfairly?
11. “Inside voices tell me too.”
For those with Dissociative Identity Disorder, this relates very much back to doing the system work and internal work necessary to resolve the troubles you are having. If someone inside is telling you to hurt yourself, who is saying that to you? And why? And what will happen if you don’t do it? What will happen if you refuse to hurt yourself? Why will that happen? Why are they saying this, and where did they learn about such destructive behavior? Are you showing them that they don’t have to be so destructive anymore? And if they truly believe this, do you understand why that is true for them? Lots and lots of internal communication is needed here. And each of those insiders that are involved in self-harming behaviors need to be walked through this list on their own to discover what is going on for them individually.
12. Lost time. “I didn’t even know it happened.”
For lots of folks with Dissociative Identity Disorder, self-harm happens when you have switched to others in your system. Addressing this kind of self harm goes back to the need to do some very serious system work and build better internal communication. Find out who these parts are, and nurture a positive relationship with them. Learn why they cut. What triggers them? What sets them off? Why do they cut? Do you understand them? Until you learn more about these parts of your system, you may very well be kept in the dark, behind an amnesiac wall while they come out and do whatever it is that they need to do.
Obviously, to successfully address self-harm issues, it takes much more than replacing those behaviors with a distraction technique. However, the distraction techniques can be enormously helpful to use while you are addressing any of the concerns mentioned above,
My thought is, you’ve been hurt more than enough already. You really don’t need or deserve any more pain. Getting hurt so much didn’t help you.
It didn’t help you then, and it won’t help you now.
Instead, be kind to yourself instead. Be gentle. Treat yourself with the tenderness and soft caring you should ave had all these years.
You don’t have to be hurt anymore.
- 25 Ways to Avoid Self-Injury and Prevent Self-Harm
- 50 Treatment Issues for Dissociative Identity Disorder
- 25 More Ways to Avoid Self-Injury and Prevent Self-Harm
Copyright © 2008-2017 Kathy Broady MSW and Discussing Dissociation