Webb Therapy Uncategorized Understanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destruction

Understanding self-harm, self-injury, and self-destruction

What is meant by self-harm?

Self-harm is any behaviour that involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself without the intention to end your life. Self-harm can include behaviours such as cutting, burning or hitting oneself, binge-eating or starvation, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations. It can also involve abuse of drugs or alcohol, including overdosing on prescription medications. Self-harm is usually a response to distress, whether it be from mental illness, trauma, or psychological pain. Some people find that the physical pain of self-harm helps provide temporary relief from emotional pain (extract from Self harm (lifeline.org.au)).

People who engage in self-harm will profess that they have no intention of dying and that their self-harming behaviour is a coping strategy, however, there are incidents of accidental suicide. The act of self-harm can develop into an obsessive-compulsion experience which can be very difficult to stop, like addiction, without outside intervention. This can result in feelings of hopelessness and possible suicidal thinking. Like building a tolerance to a drug, when self-injury does not relieve the tension or help control negative thoughts and feelings, the person may injure themselves more severely or may start to believe they can no longer control their pain and may consider suicide.

The following extract by Tracy Alderman Ph.D explains the physiological response to physical pain:

“Physiologically, endorphins are released when we are injured or stressed. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that act similarly to morphine and reduce the amount of pain we experience when we are hurt. Joggers often report experiencing a “runners high” when reaching a physically stressful period. This “high” is the physiological reaction to the release of endorphins – the masking of pain by a substance that mimics morphine. When people self-injure, the same process takes place. Endorphins are released which limit or block the amount of physical pain that’s experienced. Sometimes people who intentionally hurt themselves will even say that they felt a “rush” or “high” from the act. Given the role of endorphins, this makes perfect sense” (Oct 22, 2009).

Please click on the link for the full article Myths and Misconceptions of Self-Injury: Part II | Psychology Today Australia

The first step is to distinguish between self-harming and suicidal behaviour by paying attention to a person’s underlying motivation. When working with self-harming behaviour it is important to remember that this behaviour serves a purpose. In collaboration with the client, try to identify what problem self-harm solves for the client. For example, from the client’s perspective:

  • To make me feel real (counteracts dissociation)
  • To punish me (temporarily lessens guilt or shame)
  • To stop me from feeling (when strong feelings are too dangerous)
  • To mark the body (to show externally the internal scars)
  • To let something bad out (symbolic way to try to get rid of shame, pain, etc.)
  • To remember
  • To keep from hurting someone else (to control my behaviour and my anger)
  • To communicate (to let someone know how bad the pain is)
  • To express anger indirectly (to punish someone without getting them angry at me)
  • To reclaim control of the body (this time I’m in charge)
  • To feel better

Tips for helping yourself in the moment
It can be hard for people who self-harm to stop it by themselves. That’s why it’s important to get further help if needed; however, the ideas below may be helpful to start relieving some distress:

  • Intense exercise for 30 seconds, 30 second break, repeat, up to 15 minutes – Exercising intensely will help your body mitigate unpleasant energy that can sometimes be stored from strong emotions. Transfer this energy by running, walking at a fast pace, doing jumping jacks, etc. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which will help combat any negative emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness.
  • Delay — put off self-harming behaviours until you have spoken to someone.
  • Distract — do some exercise, go for a walk, play a game, do something kind for yourself, play loud music or use positive coping strategies.
  • Deep breathing — or other relaxation methods.
  • Cool your body temperature – Cooler temperatures decrease your heart rate (which is usually faster when we are emotionally overwhelmed). You can either splash your face with cold water, take a cold (but not too cold) shower, or if the weather outside is chilly you can go outside for a walk. Another idea is to take an ice cube and hold it in your hand or rub your face with it.
  • Listen to loud music
  • Call someone you trust or one of the services available like LifeLine 13 11 14, MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 and BeyondBlue 1300 22 4636 [see below].
  • You could write an email to yourself to express your emotions, or journal your feelings, if that’s something that might be effective for you.
  • Watch humorous Youtube clips

New, healthier coping strategies may not be as effective as the one you’re trying to replace so it may take practice. Bring lots of compassion to yourself, okay.

You may find that some of these strategies work in some situations but not others, or you may find that you need to use a combination of these. It’s important to find what works for you. Also, remember that these are not long-term solutions to self-harm but rather, useful short-term alternatives for relieving distress.

Mental health services infographic

Related Post

What is your intention? Why “will power” is often not enough.What is your intention? Why “will power” is often not enough.


Adapted from AIPC (2022), Institute Inbrief, Issue 363.

Oftentimes, a brand new year is used like a clean slate. We can do this any time throughout the year, however, I understand that there is an added element of our “collective consciousness” in the universal atmosphere motivating us with some renewed energy and will. At this time of year, humans perceive that everyone else is also feeling hopeful, invigorated, and full of promise. But the road to realisation of goals is littered with the carcasses of broken dreams, unfulfilled promises, and intentions that dissipated in the stress and mundane of everyday life – our goals did not receive the “oxygen” required to be sustainable.

What is our “Will”?

Have you ever fallen short of accomplishing you New Year’s Resolution? Sometimes, even before the end of New Year’s Day? People many think, “I don’t have the will power to sustain it”, however, if we look at this from the perspective of Psychosynthesis, a transpersonal psychology, we will understand why our understanding of “will power” if often incorrect. If you did anything today, you have will inside you. You have drive, motive, and energy.

While our will may not have all the “power” that we would like it to have, our will is always present with us, somewhere. Psychosynthesis counsellors, especially trained to be observant about will, acknowledge that one of their sacred duties with clients is to track their will, but all mental health professionals can tune more into the willing function of self, for the ultimate good of the client. What do we need to know to do that?

First, will isn’t just desire energy. It is not synonymous with control, it is not about “strong-arming” someone, and it isn’t merely about repressing undesirable material.

Personal and transpersonal will

At a personal level, “will” can be understood as an essential impulse toward our own wholeness. It is that drive within us which coordinates the often-conflicting parts of our personalities into self-expression. As the function closest to the self, it regulates and directs other functions, such as imagination, intuition, impulses, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. It is will which guides us toward personal integration. As we align our lives with a broader vision for what we may be, we go beyond personal will, receiving guidance from transpersonal will: the will of Self (as opposed to “self”).

Along that journey, however, people can fail to execute our will in a way which allows our goals to be realised. This post looks at the aspects of will, which, if they are not employed or are employed badly, can stunt the client’s intentions, keeping their goals from ever realising.

Aspects of will: Strength, Skill, and Virtue

Strength

When people make statements as mentioned above, decrying their lack of “will power” or “internal energy”, they are probably referring to the most well-known aspect of will: that is, “strong will”. It is believed that when we are born, we are unaware that we are separate from our birth giver. The beginning of individuation (the process of forming a stable personality) is the beginning of recognising that “will” exists. We are not only separate from Mum; we actually want something other than what Mum seems to be giving us. We come to see that we have arms and legs and a mouth, so we use these tools to explore the world the way we want to. We learn that crying will have certain needs met. It is the aspect of “strong will” that ensures that our willed act — say, crying for food — contains enough intensity or “drive” to carry out its purpose (getting us fed).

In other words, have you ever seen a really hungry baby stop crying after a very short time if it is not fed? Generally, not. It is possible that our new diet or exercise regime has failed because we didn’t elicit the intensity or “drive” to the intention to exercise or stick to our new diet. We may need to explore what situations in life are keeping us from applying greater intensity to the question. Maybe our desire to change is not worth the requisite “will” or “energy”. The road of least resistance is very common as we age and accumulate more life responsibilities.

This is not true for everyone. Some people will vehemently proclaim that do want to change. It is not lack of wanting, or lack of “will”. What is missing may be the second aspect of “will”, equally important to the first: that of skilful will.

Skill

Several sayings are relevant here:

  1. Environment is stronger than will power.
  2. When imagination and will power go up against one another, imagination wins every time.

These axioms allude to the often-unrecognised reality that we cannot generally achieve our goals through strong will, alone. Consider the alcoholic who desperately wants to stop drinking but they continue relapsing. If we put our will into competition with other psychological forces — such as impulse or feeling — it becomes overwhelmed; we end up stressed without accomplishing our goal. What we are missing in this case is likely to be the capacity to develop strategy, approaching the goal skilfully, and practically. Oftentimes, we want to achieve our goal without attaining the skills necessary to achieve it.

If you want to lose weight, for example, could think that you simply need to eat fewer calories and the extra kilo’s will start dropping off. Calories in Vs Calories out. But your role as strategist can be very helpful if you establish, for example, whether you’re often in situations where controlling food intake is difficult: say, when going out to eat or eating at private parties, or it’s the holiday like Christmas. Are you eating balanced meals, with sufficient protein (for example) to sustain yourself? Are you getting enough sleep to avoid overproduction of the hunger-inducing hormone ghrelin? How much do you know about body composition, the endocrine system, metabolism, nutrition, and exercise physiology?

There are myriad ways to be skilful around weight loss plans, and you may need to consider adopting some of them for success. For example, do you have effective interpersonal skills to communicate your needs to the people in your life that exercise and healthy eating is valuable to you, and you need their support? Or do you have the skills to join a peer group that exercises regularly. Perhaps you could improve your financial skills to budget for a Personal Trainer.

If we must merely “strong-arm” ourselves to achieve every end, we end up exhausted and discouraged, with few accomplishments. “Skilful will” allows us to use will not as a direct power or force, but as a function which stimulates, regulates, and directs other functions of ourselves so that they lead to the goal. For example, learning mindful eating skills may cultivate a relationship with bodily sensations which allows you to observe the sensation of true hunger pains as opposed to times when you eat because of boredom or wanting to feel good (temporarily). You can also learn skills to meet alleviate boredom or feeling emotionally nourished in other ways.

Even with employing strong and skilful will, however, your may not achieve your goal(s). That’s okay. Please do not judge yourself. It’s what Buddhism called the second arrow. That is, you already didn’t meet your goal (the first arrow) and then you judge yourself for it (the second arrow). You are human, not superhuman.

A third aspect, equally important with the first two, may also need to be employed. It is “Virtuous Will”.

Virtue

Is your goal something you can achieve all by yourself through prudent use of strong and skilful will? No one is an island; we all live in communities and interact with family, friends, co-workers, gym instructors, enemies, and others on a regular basis. Those willed acts that succeed in accomplishing the will-er’s goal do so because they have considered the need to choose goals that are consistent with the welfare of others and the common good of humanity. They also must be consistent with “virtuous will” to the “self”.

The bottom line here is that many people need to do serious work around having virtuous will for themselves. For example, if you “hate” yourself for weighing more than what you would like, the motivation for change is unlikely to succeed because it is born in self-hatred. It is more effective to improve your self-esteem and sense of worth as a person, independent of your goal, so that any weight loss and subsequent weight maintenance can be in the context of “something I do to value myself; I like myself as I am and want to enhance the health of that self”.

Accessing transpersonal will

According to Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, using our will doesn’t stop with developing strong, skilful, and virtuous will: the three aspects of personal will. Assagioli claims that we can manifest all three of those and still be unhappy if we do not see how our personal goals align with something greater than ourselves. Having that solid sense of meaning and purpose to achieve something beyond the benefit of our little “self” helps us to reach beyond the limitations of ordinary consciousness to more expanded, intense states of awareness.

To yearn for that and not have it is what Viktor Frankl called “the abyss experience”: the opposite of Maslow’s peak experience (Boeree, 2006). Yet it is often in the abyss and despair of meaninglessness that we feel the pull of the superconscious, activating our transpersonal will and giving us access to another level of being. And then life becomes more interesting, as we try to balance the needs of material life (our immanence) and those of our higher levels of being (our transcendence), experienced as intentions arising from our transpersonal will.

Even the hypothetical person’s goal of weight loss (seemingly a very personal goal) may be able to access transpersonal will. Let’s say you lose the weight, arriving at your goal weight. You may enjoy a slender new body for a while, but ultimately that may not be enough to sustain lasting contentment, peace, and satisfaction. Looking “good” may not be the sole purpose of the original intention. If you can transform your goal, however, to a goal more inclusive of potential good for humanity as a whole — you may find that your personal will is aligned with transpersonal will. Just look at all the people on Youtube trying to help others, or the reward and continued sobriety members of Alcoholics Anonymous are given by “helping others”. Transpersonal will goes beyond the self and comes back to support our intention. Perhaps you want to write about healthy-body image as a method to transcend your Will to others.

The Will and the End of this Article

An effective and intentional use of will increases joy, openheartedness, and equanimity. Through use of not only strong will, but also skilful and good will — and perhaps even transpersonal will — your New Year’s resolutions will be far more likely to succeed, and you can experience willing as an act that leads to joy.

References

  1. Assagioli, R. (1973/1984). The act of will: A guide to self-actualization and self-realization. Wellingborough: Turnstone Press.
  2. Boeree, C. G. (2006). Viktor Frankl. Personality theories. Shippensburg University. Retrieved on 5 November, 2012, from: Website.
  3. Mental Health Academy. (n.d.). Understanding Will. Mental Health Academy.

Unhelpful Cognitions (thoughts) and DistortionsUnhelpful Cognitions (thoughts) and Distortions

Unhelpful Cognitions

Mental Filter: This thinking style involves a “filtering in” and “filtering out” process – a sort of “tunnel vision”, focusing on only one part of a situation and ignoring the rest. Usually this means looking at the negative parts of a situation and forgetting the positive parts, and the whole picture is coloured by what may be a single negative detail.

Jumping to Conclusions: We jump to conclusions when we assume that we know what someone else is thinking (mind reading) and when we make predictions about what is going to happen in the future (predictive thinking).

Mind reading: Is a habitual thinking pattern characterized by expecting others to know what you’re thinking without having to tell them or expecting to know what others are thinking without them telling you. This is very common, and most people can identify. Oftentimes, when we are telling someone a story about an interaction, we’ve had with someone else, we will make mind reading assumptions without actually having fact or evidence e.g., “They haven’t phoned me in two weeks so they must be angry with me for cancelling on them last week.”

Personalisation: This involves blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong or could go wrong, even when you may only be partly responsible or not responsible at all. You might be taking 100% responsibility for the occurrence of external events. It can also involve blaming someone else for something for which they have no responsibility. This can often occur when setting a boundary with someone and you take responsibility for their guilt or anger.

Catastrophising: Catastrophising occurs when we “blow things out of proportion” and we view the situation as terrible, awful, dreadful, and horrible, even though the reality is that the problem itself may be quite small.

Black & White Thinking: Also known as splitting, dichotomous thinking, and all-or-nothing thinking, involves seeing only one side or the other (the positives or the negatives, for example). You are either wrong or right, good or bad and so on. There are no in-betweens or shades of grey.

Should-ing and Must-ing: Sometimes by saying “I should…” or “I must…” you can put unreasonable demands or pressure on yourself and others. Although these statements are not always unhelpful (e.g., “I should not get drunk and drive home”), they can sometimes create unrealistic expectations.

Should-ing and must-ing can be a psychological distortion because it can “deny reality” e.g., I shouldn’t have had so much to drink last night. This is helpful in the sense that it communicates to us that we have exceeded our boundaries, however, saying “shouldn’t” about a past situation can be futile because it cannot be changed.

Overgeneralisation: When we overgeneralise, we take one instance in the past or present, and impose it on all current or future situations. If we say, “You always…” or “Everyone…”, or “I never…” then we are probably overgeneralising.

Labelling: We label ourselves and others when we make global statements based on behaviour in specific situations. We might use this label even though there are many more examples that are not consistent with that label. Labelling is a cognitive distortion whereby we take one characteristic of a person/group/situation and apply it to the whole person/group/situation. Example: “Because I failed a test, I am a failure” or “Because she is frequently late to work, she is irresponsible”.

Emotional Reasoning: This thinking style involves basing your view of situations or yourself on the way you are feeling. For example, the only evidence that something bad is going to happen is that you feel like something bad is going to happen. Emotions and feelings are real however they are not necessarily indicative of objective truth or fact.

Magnification and Minimisation: In this thinking style, you magnify the positive attributes of other people and minimise your own positive attributes. Also known as the binocular effect on thinking. Often it means that you enlarge (magnify) the positive attributes of other people and shrink (minimise) your own attributes, just like looking at the world through either end of the same pair of binoculars.

(CCI, 2008)

When our intelligent and necessary emotion – ANGER – becomes unhealthy and damagingWhen our intelligent and necessary emotion – ANGER – becomes unhealthy and damaging

The function of anger is to protect vulnerability and neutralize threat.

The threat humans cognitively perceive is almost always to the ego i.e., how we want to think of ourselves and have others think of us. Anger neutralizes ego-threat by devaluing, demeaning, or undermining the “power” of the person perceived to be threatening. Humans get angry when they don’t get what they want, when they’re disrespected, or when they perceive something is unjust/unfair. Anger, the emotion, is a chemical messenger. It communicates to us, to others, and motivates us to act, speak, do something. Healthy responses to anger include being assertive, feeling empowered, protecting ourselves and love ones from ACTUAL threat, setting boundaries with others, and making social change for justice (for example). It becomes unhealthy when we become passive-aggressive, violent, vengeful, spiteful, aggressive, resentful, sarcastic, “moody”, rude etc.

Receive the message and respond from a wise, calm place after the intensity of the emotion has past. Sometimes we have to act in the moment. Our ancestors may have required this for fight/flight survival. These days, we can generally PAUSE and calm the self before responding from a mindful and compassionate heart and mind. Remember: Hurt people, hurt people.