Learn about the AFSP Out of Darkness Walks, which spread awareness about suicide: www.afsp.org/out-of-thedarkness-walks
A guide to teenagers and adults who self-harm Every year millions of teenagers and adults engage in self-harm. While people often assume self-harm only refers to acts such as cutting, millions of people struggle with other forms of self-destructive behavior like substance abuse and eating disorders. No matter the form, these acts are often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and shame, reflective of traumatic or painful past experiences.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN EXCERPT FROM:
LETTING GO OF SELF-DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIORS:
A WORKBOOK OF HOPE AND HEALING, BY LISA FERENTZ
Many of the self-destructive “symptoms” that you struggle with have their roots in a desire to have a witness for your story, to zone out from painful feelings, or to self-soothe. It is completely normal and healthy to want to avoid pain and find a way to express your life experiences. Sadly, the ways in which you attempt to achieve these outcomes are often harmful to your self-esteem and destructive to your mind and body. Yet it may be all you know and the only thing that has been modeled for you. Choosing to engage in self-destructive behaviors may be a way to mimic prior abuse or pain, and sometimes confirms that self-care wasn’t reinforced or available to you in childhood. You’re not making harmful choices because there is something wrong with you. You make harmful choices because no one ever showed you how to make good choices or made you feel worthy of good choices. True healing can begin when you learn to separate who you are from what happened to you. Although every person who engages in selfdestructive behavior has a unique life story, the sad truth is that countless people have experienced some form of sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, psychological abuse, or neglect. Despite this reality, many survivors feel completely alone in their trauma experiences. Letting you know that you are not alone is a way to help you feel re-connected to others and the world at large.
Another useful thing to know is that when you haven’t worked out traumatic experiences they leave behind real and often upsetting thoughts, body sensations and emotions. Although it is certainly true that ten people can experience the same trauma and respond in ten different ways, it is equally true that people who have been traumatized can think, feel, and behave in very similar ways. If you do struggle with uncomfortable thoughts, overwhelming feelings, and body pain or discomfort, know that you are not alone and that your experiences are real and worthy of attention. Hopefully, you are beginning to get the message that you are not “sick” because you self-harm. Holding on to this idea goes a long way towards reducing guilt and shame. When you believe your issues and symptoms are proof that there is something wrong with you, it can leave you thinking, “I’m bad,” or “the abuse was my fault.” Instead, consider that “something bad happened to you,” or “the abuse was the fault and responsibility of the person who chose to hurt you.” Traumatic experiences affect people in different ways, and some people can function at higher levels than others. But anyone who has been traumatized pays a price and often suffers silently. There can be a big difference between an outer appearance of confidence and competence and inner feelings of inadequacy and shame. Sometimes the conflict between those two states creates pain that needs to be soothed. Sometimes the resurfacing of old memories and feelings needs to be pushed aside or comforted. Self-destructive acts can feel like a way to manage the leftover pain from these past traumatic or distressing experiences. Another concept that is an important part of the treatment of trauma and self-destructive behaviors is “re-framing.” Re-framing doesn’t change the reality of an experience. It does, however, let you think and feel differently
about that experience. And the good news is, when you can change your beliefs about past abuse, how you feel about your body, why a trusted caretaker mistreated you, or why you went through a painful life stressor, the impact of those experiences changes as well. One of the most important re-frames is the idea that the person who hurt you doesn’t need to apologize, cooperate in therapy, own their behavior, express guilt about what they’ve done or even feel compassion towards you in order for you to heal or let go of your self-destructive acts. All that matters is your ability to think and feel differently about your experiences: letting go of thoughts that leave you feeling responsible or “damaged.” All destructive behaviors can be stopped when you are able to see what was done to you through a more accurate and compassionate lens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Ferentz Lisa Ferentz is an LCSW-C, a Diplomat of the American Psychotherapy Association, and has been in private practice for 30 years, specializing in adolescent and adult survivors of trauma, abuse and neglect. Ferentz presents workshops, lectures, and keynote addresses nationally and internationally, and is a clinical consultant to private practitioners, domestic violence programs and mental health agencies. She has been an Adjunct Faculty member at several universities, and is Founder and President of The Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education, Inc. For more information, see www.lisaferentz.com.