Understanding Self Harm

This piece is part of the series, “Readers Take Over Hevria”. Rivka was requested to talk more about her struggles. Here is her offering.


No matter how much I age, intense negative feelings never seem to find a home within my skin.

All I want to do when they fester is to desperately get them out.

There are the fortunate times when I successfully channel these negative emotions- through exercise, reading, self-expression, or counseling- and don’t end up hurting others or myself in the process.

But it’s pretty hard to be successful at positively channeling them out all of the time.

As humans, we develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to rid ourselves of these powerful emotions.

Some of us build walls of avoidance, pretending the ugly feelings and thoughts don’t exist, until they implode on a random Tuesday in November while babysitting the neighbor’s cat.

Or we eat and eat, or starve and starve, or watch show after show, distracting ourselves from the cancer brewing within.

Still others choose to eradicate yucky feelings by yelling it out- yelling at whoever is closest, or whoever is most likely to take it.

Many take the physical route and try to slap themselves out of it.  Some hurt others or smash furniture. A lesser understood population hurt themselves.

A bewildered onlooker might ask, why would you do that?

The self-abuser knows in a way others can’t truly understand that it stops things- it stops the pain from festering, it distracts the mind from the endless cycle it has been on, it channels the emotions and lets the abuser move on.

“Don’t you love yourself?” an (untrained) psychologist once asked me flabbergasted when I told her my struggle, making me sink into my knee high boots, and I answered back, equally confused, “ I think I like myself a lot…”

But I started to realize through inner reflection that in moments of sheer panic, when stress got too high, when I felt alone, abandoned, and hopeless, when my husband raised his voice and argued a bit too passionately for my temperament, that my heart and guts got so full of anger that I didn’t know where to channel it. And something within me would shift.

So full of virulent emotions and panic and a sense that there was nowhere to escape to, no way to stop my mind from cycling, no way to find space within me to breathe, no one to catch me, that I would choose what seemed the most viable option- to abandon myself. Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it -my mind would caution myself, rocking back and forth, hiding my hands under my butt as I folded onto the bed to keep them away. Don’t do it, don’t do it- smack. Smack, smack, smack, smack . Stinging cheek. Red hand. Inner relief. Space to breathe.

And of course the thought, oh shit.  But relief all the same. At least I could stop crying and go take a shower and calm down.

I never deeply understood this moment of self-abandonment and what drove me to try and smack those feelings out of me until I read Brene Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough.”

In this powerful book, Brene talks about shame. She insists that we commonly neglect using the word “shame” in our culture to identify an emotion. We talk about how we feel sad, angry, or hurt. But we rarely say or understand when we feel shamed. And shame, she clearly underlines, is very different than embarrassment, though we seem to confuse the two. In embarrassment, we feel that we did something wrong. In shame, we believe that we are wrong. That because of our actions or thoughts, we are unlovable.

I realized something while reading that book. That when I got so, so overworked and overstressed and everything was pulling me under at once, and my husband and I were arguing and not on the same team, that I internalized all of the frustration, hurt, and anger because I didn’t know how to get rid of it. With nowhere to direct it, I directed it inwards. And I flipped, in the blink of an eye, in a way my mind didn’t even process, into believing in a deep, subconscious way, that I was unlovable, unsalvageable. That I hated myself. That I deserved punishment.

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The double-edged sword was that even though the intensity of the hatred and virulence would disappear once I physically hit myself, I was then overcome with another, more subtle but prolonged sense of shame: What is wrong with me that I did this? And of course, the deep core belief that no one can ever know about this If they did, they would be so freaked out and disturbed and know that I am broken.

I worked for a long time with a special psychologist on how to overcome this reaction. What I appreciated most of all was that he didn’t flinch when I first told him about hitting myself. He just nodded, as if to say, yes, sure, normal, this happens to some. I guess he had learned about self harm before and probably worked with other people on it, but his nonplussed reaction made me feel so much more… lovable. Changeable.

We tried different techniques: When you’re feeling so overwhelmed with anger, try and squeeze ice, he would suggest. But I could never get myself to do that. Try to leave the home. But that wasn’t always possible, and sometimes the sense of shame imprisoned me within my bones. He always helped me feel like even if I didn’t win the battle of not hurting myself, each time I resisted, each time I fought against it or tried a different technique, I was getting closer to triumphing. These things take time, he would nod reassuringly, and I would feel that I was okay, that I was on the path to wholeness.

If I could ever feel safe enough, during moments of folded-on-the-bed crisis, to call a friend, and listen to her listen to me, just for ten minutes, all the intensity would dissipate.  Shame has no power when it’s exposed and embraced.  But it’s not always so simple to find that friend that will just listen and not judge, and she’s not always available. Besides, I wanted to learn how to save myself.

What finally was my saving grace was wrapped up in my Brene Brown realization of how I got into the emotional dungeon in the first place: If I had trapped myself in a wordless place of shame, telling myself I had no value when stress got too high and I had messed up, then the only way out was the way I came in- through reminding myself of my value.

It helped me that I could meditate on the Chassidic idea of essence- that I knew at a deep, core level that essentially, I had a value, just because I existed. I was a soul, a soul made from Gd’s hands, and regardless of what I had done, regardless of who loved or hated me, regardless of whether I even loved myself, I knew I had to have value. Because I existed. Meditating on that idea could get me out of the intense fear of failure, rejection, anger or whatever it was that engulfed me in the heat of the moment so that I could move on.

Another thing helped me, too, perhaps even more strongly. Gratitude. When my mind was circulating negative thoughts in an incessant stream, viciously repeating itself, I would tell myself think of one thing that you are grateful for. In that state, it was really, really hard to do that. I’m grateful I’m breathing, I would eventually muster out. Good, I would congratulate myself, now think of another. How much I was battling myself. Slowly, slowly, distracting my thoughts and my anger into a lighter sensation of gratitude would lift me outside of myself and my dismal existence, and I could emerge into the world again.

Just like people who hurt themselves through eating disorders or addiction issues come from a plethora of backgrounds, I believe that those who struggle with self-harm also come from a broad range of experiences and reasons. I am sure it is as unique and complicated as each individual who struggles with it. I know very little about it, other than my own experience.

But I know this- it can be overcome. And it must be overcome.

A kind, but struggling, soul once asked me, “If cutting myself relaxes me and makes me feel better, what’s wrong with it?”

I had two answers, the first one being that of course, Gd says it’s wrong; the Torah makes it very clear that we’re not allowed to harm our bodies. But that doesn’t always do much for a self-harmer, except make them feel more ashamed and wrong for acting out. What a self-harmer needs is compassion, not admonishment. Connection, not isolation.

The other answer came to me quickly afterwards: Because it separates you from other human beings. It makes you feel ashamed. And shame is the worst. Shame keeps you from spreading your light. Shame chains you to this earth and clips your wings. Self harm and shame are a terribly dysfunctional couple, codependent on each other to the extreme.

Gd doesn’t want us to live like that. Because shame is antithetical to how Gd created us. Shame says that for some reason, because of how we act, think or look, we are not lovable. That’s simply not true. We are inherently lovable. Essentially lovable. Simply because we are, because we exist, because we breathe, because we think.

And if Gd wants us to find Him in the lowest places on Earth, you better believe He’s hoping that we’re looking for Him when we’re wallowing in shame. You better know that He’s praying that we’ll discover our inherent self-worth even after we’ve abandoned ourselves.

By tapping honestly and wholeheartedly into baseless love, shame just gets up and disappears. It’s not real, because it’s built on faulty premises.

Through discovering a sensation of gratitude in the midst of abject poverty of existence, one can uncover a gold mine of unstoppable inner strength.

Self-harm isn’t a permanent situation. It can be overcome. But we must overcome it with compassion and connection. Compassion for ourselves and compassion for those who are imprisoned within themselves into believing that for some reason, they should hide a part of themselves from the world. Imprisoned into thinking that for some reason, they are not fully whole and lovable.

We are glorious, simply because we exist. We are worthy, simply because we breathe. We are broken, yes, all of us, because that is the human condition, but we are also at the same time, on a different essential level, completely whole, because we come from a place beyond the fragile imperfect finiteness of this challenging world.

Which makes us totally, completely, irrevocably lovable, for all of our days on this Earth. And there’s nothing we can do, say, or think that will take that truth away from us.

May this be a year of unimaginable self love and personal triumphs for all of humanity.