Self-injury can be difficult to understand or accept. It taps into our fear about unacceptable behaviour that strays outside of the norm; a fear that ‘anarchy will reign if we don’t put on a brave face, if we don’t control our emotions, if we don’t have a stiff upper lip!’. Well guess what? The inability to express and articulate our sadness, fear, rage or disgust allows anarchy to do just that. Except that it reigns within the confines of our own minds, wreaking havoc until it finds a way to escape and let itself be known.
And sometimes the only way it can find expression is through the physical harming of one’s own body. These emotions find a voice, and it’s a voice that finds release and relief through harm.
The paradox of self-injury demonstrates how a dangerous and harmful activity has the potential to save a person from total self-destruction. Understanding this can be the first step in understanding self-injury.
Harming one’s body can be used as a coping mechanism, allowing the release of unmanageable emotional pain that is too difficult to verbalise or understand at any logical level. It can communicate extreme distress and aid in the quieting of inner turmoil and ‘noise’. It can bring back a sense of control when life feels overwhelming. Self-injury may be destructive, but under these conditions it works.
Understanding the importance of self-injury to an individual as a survival technique helps to illustrate how stopping or reducing self-injury can be a frightening prospect. You could liken it to removing a safety net; something familiar; something controllable in a world that is unpredictable and downright scary. It’s wrong to remove a coping mechanism without replacing it beforehand. Any road to recovery can only begin with a willingness to reduce and move off self-injury – from the individual and no-one else. It has to be your choice.
For those who witness loved ones battling with self-injury, feelings can veer from fear to anger, from helplessness to revulsion, from sadness to guilt. The temptation to beg, demand or cajole your loved one to stop is a difficult one to resist.
But please remember, self-injury has been their companion through the darkest of times and possibly the only thing between them and complete breakdown or worse. Self-injury (as a coping mechanism) needs to be respected for that even though the management and reduction of the behaviour remains the goal – and health and happiness the ultimate goal.
But these goals can only be achieved at individual’s pace; although support may be appreciated or very much needed, control should remain with the individual. They are the experts on their own experience which makes them the experts in defining what works for them. Trust them… they’ll work it out with your love and patience.
Kyla – Cardiff University