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Archive for October 31st, 2007

Man under palm trees (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Self-injury is a very common aftereffect of childhood abuse. Most people think that self-injury is synonymous with cutting, but the truth is that there is a wide variety of ways to self-injure that do not involve cutting yourself. Here is a small sample of ways that people self-injure:

  • Banging head
  • Breaking bones
  • Burning themselves
  • Cutting themselves
  • Picking at skin and/or scabs
  • Pulling out hair and/or eyebrows

Even biting your fingernails is a minor form of self-injury.

Why do people self-injure? They do it because it is a very effective way to manage pain. I did not say that it is healthy in the long run, but it is quite effective in the short run.

I used to self-injure by banging my head. While that sounds painful (and it was – I gave myself whiplash more than once), I could not feel any physical pain in the moment. What I felt was immediate relief from my very deep emotional pain. Self-injuring provided me with a way to make the emotional pain stop immediately. When I felt like I was free-falling into very deep pain, I knew I could make it stop as if I was flipping a switch.

Unfortunately, there are long-term consequences to self-injuring. I have experienced whiplash and bruised my face, and I did have to feel the pain for several days afterward. I am fortunate that I never did more physical damage to myself.

For those who cut or burn themselves, they wear permanent scars, even after they stop self-injuring. Those who leave scars on themselves often have trouble expressing their pain. Instead, they carve their pain onto their bodies, so their bodies scream their story to the world while they have no voice. As one survivor friend put it, “My abusers’ actions left no marks. I left those on myself.”

People who self-injure are not trying to commit “mini-suicides.” Self-injury is simply a coping tool, albeit a potentially dangerous one. I cringe when I hear about parents or spouses who forbid self-injury and then do spot checks to enforce the rule. People who self-injure are in deep emotional pain, and they are not going to stop until they develop more healthy ways to manage the pain and then heal the underlying pain that is driving the behavior.

Both my sister and I have found a way to stop self-injuring, and you can, too. There are better ways to manage your pain without harming yourself. Self-injuring does not make you a “freak.” Self-injury is a coping tool you are using to manage your pain. The more you can lean on more positive coping tools, the less you will need to lean on self-injury. See Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse for a list of positive coping tools.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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