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What Renee Taught Me About Why Some People Harm Themselves

When I met Renee she told me she was nervous all of the time. And, she was cutting herself.

Some people resort to self-harm when they're overwhelmed by emotions. When we feel utterly alone and out of control, we’re capable of doing illogical things to stop bad feelings. Self-harm can become a reliable, albeit self-destructive, way to cope. It can also be unlearned and replaced with healthier ways to soothe ourselves.

Fear and feeling "bad"

When we met, Renee told me that part of her mind was constantly yelling at her, just like her father had yelled at her throughout her childhood.

“You’re a stupid little shit,” the male voice in her head would say.

As an adult, this made her feel she was a “bad person.” And both the real and imagined anger of other people terrified her – they were huge triggers for Renee, connecting her back to early memories of her father’s rages.

These feelings would come up quickly and were absolutely excruciating. The only way she had discovered to stop them was to inflict pain on her own body. Her cutting seemed to satisfy two purposes:

  • It was self-punishment for her perceived badness; and

  • It somehow stopped the emotions from intensifying any further.

Start with compassion

Symptoms like cutting are often described as “just crazy.” In fact, they are in some ways wise. They can be thought of as a person’s best attempt to become calm in the face of utter aloneness. Despite the fact that cutting is not a healthy, long-term coping strategy, the intention is to find relief and the short-term effect of cutting is helpful to the sufferer.

Time and again, my patients are relieved when I share this positive understanding of their self-harming behaviors. I invite them to approach their behavior with a stance of curiosity and compassion for themselves.

Then learn healthy ways to self-soothe

Symptoms like cutting won’t go away until the sufferer has other ways to calm their emotional overwhelm. To ask someone to stop cutting without offering alternative ways to achieve comfort is akin to asking a trapeze artist to give up their safety net. Renee and I experimented with many ways to help calm her emotions such as:

Renee and I worked together on calming her anxiety by learning what emotions were being triggered. We accessed and processed anger toward her father. She slowly learned how to tolerate her anger and channel it in healthy ways, like by asserting her limits and boundaries. She eventually learned to tolerate the full spectrum of emotions and their accompanying physical sensations.

After about six months of treatment, Renee grew much more compassionate to herself. She came to understand how her childhood traumas affected her. Eventually, her self-harming behaviors were no longer needed. She appreciated them for how they had helped at one time. She still had painful and powerful feelings like we all do, but now Renee was relieved and proud that she had new and better ways to cope.

Patient details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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