By Atevure Princess,
Many factors come together when looking at why a person self-mutilates, and one of the big ones is stress. People typically begin to self-harm because they are under more stress than they can handle. This stress leads to anxiety and this anxiety becomes overwhelming. This stress might be due to school or work pressure, problems at home or other stresses.
A self harmer, age 15 talks about how stresses at home helped explain why he self-injured: “My mum and dad split up when I was little so my mum had to bring us up on her own quite a lot . . . She had a boyfriend for a while who I really didn’t like, he used to beat her, but he never hurt me in that way . .
That was probably why I started getting so down and angry all the time. My mates thought I’d started to go boring and so I stopped going out with them as much. Then this one boy started on me after school one day and I ran away. I was so annoyed at myself for being scared again that I went home and punched the wall outside our house.”
When the level of emotional pressure becomes too high it acts as a safety valve – a way of relieving the tension. Cutting makes the blood take away the bad feelings. Pain can make you feel more alive when feeling numb or dead inside; punishing oneself in response to feelings of shame or guilt.
WHY DO PEOPLE SELF HARM?
There are many different reasons as to why people self-harm. Like every other issue, it varies from person to person. It can go from being very easy to understand to very complicated, so let me break it down here a little bit. Imagine a place where you’re all alone and you’re being dragged down in an ocean deeper and deeper with no possible escape. Now imagine finding a rope that can pull you out of that suffocation. You would do anything at that point just to get out of the water, right? And that rope is the only escape you see so when out of desperation you hold on to that and are pulled out from the water, imagine the relief. That’s how self-harm works. With the ocean being the depression you’re surrounded with and self-harm that ray of hope you see as an escape.
SO WHY DO PEOPLE SELF-HARM IN AN ATTEMPT TO FIND RELIEF?
To Regain Control; To Shift Attention: People sometimes harm themselves because by doing so, they are able to gain a subjective sense of control over chaotic internal emotions and thoughts. Seizing this control involves shifting the focus of their attention away from something more troubling towards something less troubling. Cutting or burning one’s self causes physical pain which is a very compelling and strong sensation.
Self-injurers sometimes use this pain sensation to override painful background chatter that fills their minds. For example, they may have been traumatized by a rape experience such that they have PTSD symptoms and constantly be replaying that rape in their minds.
By cutting themselves, they are able to refocus their attention on the pain of the cut and for a short while, experience relief from the rape trauma.
To Release Tension: A variation on the theme of regaining control is the idea that people self-injure as a means of releasing tension. Sometimes an aspect of a person’s chaotic internal experience is that feelings and thoughts build up a subjective state of tension or arousal that motivates people to do something to take action to reduce that tension or arousal. Cutting or burning one’s self can, apparently, serve such a tension-reducing function.
An example will serve to illustrate. I read an account of a young woman who was consumed with suicidal thoughts which pushed her towards a compulsive feeling that she should end her life.
She coped with this compulsion by cutting herself, which refocused her attention, however temporarily, away from her suicidal ideation. This wasn’t perhaps the most ideal coping solution in the world, but it was what she had come up with, and it was functioning to keep her alive.
To Return From Numbness: Traumatized people sometimes cope with their trauma by dissociating. Dissociation is a mental and emotional state where the normal unitary experience of consciousness gets chopped up into disconnected parts.
So, a person who dissociates may not remember something that happened to them that was very painful because through the process of dissociation they were able to store that painful memory in a section of their mind that the rest of themselves doesn’t know how to find.
Feelings can also be dissociated or detached from the events that provoked them such as occurs in Depersonalization Disorder. So, a painful feeling associated with a traumatic memory might be detached from that memory such that the traumatized person remembers the event as though it happened in a movie; as though it happened to someone else and they were just watching it unfold, numb to the experience.
We’re all familiar with the idea that it is painful to experience pain sensations. What people may not realize is that it is also painful to not feel anything. Dissociated people who feel largely emotionally numb are often in great pain of a sort. Some of them will self-injure so as to generate a strong sensation that is capable of bringing them back to feeling something again. There are variations on this theme. Not all numb dissociated people will use physical pain to “return”; some will use other strong sensations such as are afforded by drugs or sex, etc. But some use physical pain.
To Express/Communicate/Document Pain: Sometimes, people who self-harm are not skilled at using language to describe their inner experiences. This can be because they are not particularly good with words. It can be because they never learned (for whatever reason) what words to use to describe emotion. It can be because what they experience inside their minds is overwhelming to them (due to trauma or abuse) that words can’t do justice. Particularly with regard to severe trauma and abuse, words fail to capture the magnitude of internal reactions.
In such cases where words are not available or are inadequate to contain emotional experience, what is left to a person trying to cope with that experience is to express it physically. This process of physical expression of inner experience is sometimes called “acting out.”
One rather impulsive and aggressive form of acting out involves inflicting wounds on one’s self with the intention of using these physical wounds as a communications device. The idea is that there is some rough correspondence between easy-to-see self-inflicted physical wounds and internal and thus invisible emotional wounds.
People who self-injure as a means of communication may be doing it to draw attention to themselves (e.g., as a means of calling for help, not unlike a suicide attempt), or they may simply be trying to document to themselves that their internal experience of pain is valid and worthy. Some people who have been abused or neglected may not take their own emotional pain seriously until it has been rendered as physical damage.
Domestic Abuse/ To Self-Punish: Some people who self-injure do so because they seek to punish themselves. Often when this occurs, people who harm themselves with intent to self-punish are also people who have survived substantial abuse.
One of the lasting long-term effects of abuse is, for some people, that the voice or perspective of the abuser gets implanted into the minds of the victims in such a way that the victim starts to judge him or herself in the same way that the original abuser did and then starts to be motivated to punish him or herself.
There’s nothing magical about how this abuse implantation process works. In any relationship, each partner builds a mental model of the other partner into their own minds, and uses this model to predict what the other will do.
In the case of the abuser-victim relationship, the victim builds a model of the abuser. The abuser’s words such as “because you’re dumb, you’re worthless, you’re a failure” become a rational for the abuse. It’s not long before those words resonate in the victim’s head without them being said by the abuser. Then they start attacking themselves in the absence of the abuser.
The psychodynamic term for this process where alien values get injected into a person is “introjections,” and the alien values are known as an “interjects.” For more detail on this general process, please see Foreclosed Identities.
People who self injure do not walk around all the time judging themselves from the hostile value system that has been interjected into them. Most of the time, they are able to view the world from their own, more organic perspective. However, there are times when they get overwhelmed and that interjected perspective takes over and then the need to self-punish as compensation for being such a bad person gets expressed. Sometimes this need is expressed physically, through actual self-injury.
To Experience Euphoria, Woman taking medication: The final reason I’m aware of that people who self-injure describe has to do with feelings of euphoria or at least pleasant feelings that some self-injurers report occur right after they have finished cutting or burning or otherwise damaging themselves.
I think it’s like what happens after you exercise vigorously—you get a “runner’s high”; a temporary feeling of bliss that occurs right after you’ve worked out. Only in this case, the feeling of bliss happens in the aftermath of damaging yourself.
Some self-injurers have described this feeling as having addictive qualities. They remember how good that feeling felt and become motivated to self-injure to recreate that feeling.