I have often wondered what makes self-harm so shameful and why people are so opposed to talking about it. After a few years of intensive therapy with a psychodynamic therapist, I have come to realize that self-harm is merely a coping mechanism to help one deal with emotions they would rather not face. This realization shocked me because I simply could not understand how something as crazy and freaky as self-harm could be considered a way of coping. After unpacking this idea a lot, I understand it now.
Sometimes when I feel extremely overwhelmed with intense emotions, I find myself reaching for a razor blade. Sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I’m angry, and other times I find it difficult to put into words what I’m actually feeling. In any case, cutting my skin with the blade helped release the upsetting and overwhelming emotion that I was experiencing. I was cutting myself for emotional relief and to cope with difficult emotions.
Alright, so then what are some other ways that people cope with their emotions? I guess we can list out some “healthy” ones:
- exercise, yoga, running
- deep breathing, mindfulness, relaxation
- talking with friends, calling a loved one, reaching out to a crisis line
- eating a favorite food, baking, getting ice cream
This list can certainly go on and on. But then what about “unhealthy” ways of coping since that’s surely a long list, too:
- getting drunk, getting high, getting stoned, smoking cigarettes
- having unprotected sex, injecting drugs with dirty needles
- eating junk food, bingeing, restricting eating, purging
- not engaging in physical activity, intentionally putting oneself in dangerous or unsafe situations
This list could also go on and on and on. And I’m sure we all know someone that drinks a little too much when they’ve had a stressful day or someone who is always going on a smoke break because a cigarette helps calm their nerves. All of these ways of coping seem innately unhealthy however they are almost seen as acceptable in our culture.
If a person is dealing with alcohol abuse, they attend AA meetings or go to rehab. If a person has anorexia nervosa, they can find a therapist or a clinic aimed specifically at dealing with eating disorders. If a person is addicted to cigarettes, they can buy a nicotine patch from the drug store.
So why is it that when a person is cutting their skin and causing it to bleed, they are feared, labeled “sick” or “crazy”, and seen as extremely emotionally unstable? Where is the disconnect from “acceptable” forms of maladaptive coping to an “unacceptable” one like self-harm?
What have we done in our culture to attach such extreme amounts of shame to self-harm? By stigmatizing the behavior, we effectively force people who self-harm into silence. this silence and shame only encourages self-harm to continue. If we really want to help those who self-harm, we need to talk OPENLY about the behavior. This will begin to chip away at the layers of shame that cover those of us who self-harm.