Self-Harm: Punishing You by Hurting Me?

When I was young, I was a “cutter,” meaning I frequently acted out my pain and frustration by cutting myself, carving into my own flesh with any sharp implements I could find.  It was one of those more disturbing symptoms of my distress, and one I could never adequately explain.

Today I choose less obvious means, though they are no less destructive in the long run.  Every cigarette I light, every pound I gain, every hour of sleep I miss, every “bad” food choice I make is an act of self-harm.  But who am I actually punishing?

“Back in the day,” when psychiatrists and psychologists ruled my life, I was told that such acts served three purposes:

1.  To “punish” those who cared about me.  Such an incomprehensible act served to deepen the divide between myself and all those close to me, thus proving to them that I didn’t care about them, and proving to me that they didn’t care about me.  Hardly a reasonable argument, of course, on either side, since a lack of understanding (and coping skills) proved nothing with regards to how we felt about each other.  If they walked away from such blatant displays, it was likely a way of protecting themselves (so they didn’t have to witness my total self-destruction), or protecting me (by removing any future incentives for acting out).

2. To “punish” myself for not living up to my own expectations.

Such self-harming behaviors seem to express a deep self-loathing, an absence of self-respect, a repudiation of everything that defines “me.”  Logically, this makes sense, as I was clearly lacking in self-esteem.  But there are countless ways in which we express such a lack of self-worth, and more effective means of punishing ourselves.  Self-sabotage comes to mind.  Being an A student who drops out of high school for example; I did that.  Refusing to follow an intervention plan, in spite of pledging to it; I did that.  Getting pregnant as a teenager and keeping an unwanted child while completely lacking in parenting skills; I did that (though this turned out to be one of the best “mistakes” I ever made!).  From my perspective, self-sabotage (preventing myself from reaching my potential in life) is a much more devastating form of self-punishment than temporary scars upon my body…

3. To “cry out” for help.

Much like hanging your flag upside down (the international sign of distress), self-harming is a cry for help.  I believe some of that is true, at least in the sense that it was a way to show on the outside what was really going on inside myself.  Secrecy breeds and encourages dysfunction.  And honestly, I got tired of the shocked looks and disbelief I received when I tried to tell the truth about my life; I mean, my family seemed so “normal,” right?  How could the things I reported be true?  The same wall of appearances later protected my husband and other abusers from all unpleasant accusations.  Clearly I was crazy, downright delusional.  Self-harming proved the naysayers right, while simultaneously causing enough discomfort for them to question such assumptions; after all, if I was driven to act out in this manner, maybe there was some small bit of truth in what I said…

The “truth” for me, as it turns out, was actually two-fold.  When I remember those moments, I recall two distinct motivations.  First was an overwhelming sense of pressure, a need to get something out of me; cutting relieved that pressure temporarily.  Second was a feeling of disconnectedness, as though I didn’t truly belong here, or wasn’t fully present in the “now”; cutting “grounded” me firmly in my body, and in the present moment.  Pain does that, pulling our entire focus forward to our body in the present moment, often to the exclusion of all other things.

I was lucky in that circumstances forced me to give up the habit.  In danger of losing my daughter to the foster care system, I had to find another way to express those feelings safely.  I wound up getting sober at 21, and through that process, learned new ways of coping with both the pressures of past and present, and new ways of staying present in the moment.  Prayer and meditation have altered my entire sense of being; living “one day at a time,” or one minute, if need be, has grounded me firmly in this reality.

And I added a new “weapon” to my arsenal – writing.  I always loved writing, and journaled throughout my struggles.  But I learned that when pressures are mounting, or I feel disconnected, writing helps me discover what may be driving those feelings.  Free writing, or “stream of consciousness” pieces (as I like to call them) can reveal to me the struggles of my subconscious mind, bringing relief and insight to whatever I’m dealing with.

So yes, I still carry those scars upon my body, but today they bring me a sense of accomplishment, rather than self-doubt.  And I believe strongly that the pen is, indeed, “mightier than the sword,” or in my case, the razor.  And it is with a deep sense of personal relief that I can say, “I don’t need to punish anyone today.”

Peace, my friends…

6 thoughts on “Self-Harm: Punishing You by Hurting Me?”

  1. I agree with each and every word written, great content
    I still carry scars but one thing that helps me greatly is knowing that I am alone. Post like this and bloggers like you help many.
    Thank you, take care 🙂

    • Yay! Go us! I love that we can share and strengthen one another in this magical blogosphere!

      Take care of you today! 😀

  2. I was a ‘cutter’ too and now I totally embrace my scars because they’re my battle scars and they’re from a battle I was lucky enough to win.
    Really enjoy this post.

  3. Re-reading my post I’m adding this sentence up front. It may not be quite the response you bargained for:

    Oh those psychiatrists. They should only be allowed to pontificate this non-evidence based garbage if they have lived experience. (See I’m on a roll today!!) Anyways, I agree with you. Cutting serves me to “feel” “Feel something” and right now I long for that clean, sharp slicing sensation. But, like you, I don’t do it anymore. So I’ve eaten far too many Marks and Spencer extremely chocolatey biscuits instead. And so, instead of cutting, I’m forcing my tears down, sob by sobbing biscuit. And I’m gaining weight pound by hateful pound.

    So for me, the two reasons are: a) to feel and b) to dampen my emotions. This sets up the vicious cycle of self =-loathing and disgust. But self loathing and disgust were not the original emotions.

    Having said this I am, yet again, forced to get more therapy because I know i’m on the edge….

    • I am no therapist, Serena, so I cannot speak on their behalf. I can only share my personal experiences. I absolutely must respond to this, though I should tell you I’m at work now, so my response will be brief and to the point. I am not minimizing either your suffering or sincerity; just trying to connect within the time constraints upon me…

      First, I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to do, or judging you at all. Seek therapy or don’t, as you think best. Self-harm or not; it’s your body, not mine. The 2 points you make that bear repeating are 1) these are not the original emotions, and 2) it’s a self-perpetuating cycle (discomfort leads to self-harm, which creates self-loathing and a desire to self-harm, etc…).

      Someone once told me we are a culture based on escapism. We are taught all our lives to avoid pain, to not cry, to not give in, to survive by any means necessary. She suggested to me that sometimes we simply need to “sit with the pain.” Pain, whether physical or emotional is our body’s way of expressing distress. Just sitting with it, really feeling it, can sometimes bring more relief than any other remedy. It also allows us to put it behind us, rather than carry it forward disguised as something else…

      Secondly, that self-perpetuating cycle works both ways. It can be destructive, or constructive. By acknowledging something good about yourself (perhaps your self-awareness), you feel a tiny lift, which encourages you to do something good for yourself, which leads you to feeling a tiny bit better, etc… You, alone, can decide which way to travel…

      Honestly hoping you will find a healthy way to honor your pain…


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