In this post I am going to be considering, as a result of a recent brief, but ongoing, conversation I have had with another blogger who struggles with self-harm, the whole question of pain and self-harm.
But before continuing I need to clarify one or two things…
Firstly I am no medical or mental health professional. I am but someone who suffer with mental health related difficulties and who as part of that suffers with suicidal ideation and struggles with self-harming.
Secondly, the following are simply theories, my own theories, based on my understandings and shared as a process through which I can seek to work out what is going on and in the process open up a dialogue through which others who struggle with self-harming or have experience with it can share their thoughts and experiences.
Because of these two facts, all that I ask is that you read and carefully consider what I am saying and respond according to your heart. 🙂
The attraction of pain
It sounds counter intuitive doesn’t it? For pain to actually have an attraction to it. But then are there not those who enjoy inflicting pain on other and similarly those who enjoy having pain inflicted on them?
Of course we are all different and we all respond and react differently to things and have differing needs but why not read this through and honestly ask yourself which apply to you. And whilst doing it how about asking yourself if pain and the attraction to pain have any place or bearing when it comes to self-harm and especially when you self-harm?
So let’s look candidly at a few of the Realities, Myths and Pitfalls.
We are physical beings and thus the need for physical experiences and sensations are part of each and every one of us.
Consider if you will how good it “feels” to get into a bed freshly made with clean sheets? Or how certain textures feel against the skin. How does it feel when you are physically spent or when you put a great deal of physical effort into something and then find the release at the end of it? That rewarding feeling of aching all over and having achieved something in the process?
Or the feelings that we experience at the point of initial contact when we do self-harm?
Are we responding to the pain or to the “endorphins” released as a result of that pain – and to some extent the circumstances behind the pain?
Endorphins (“endogenous morphine”) are substances originating internally which are psychoactive chemicals bonded together and functioning as neurotransmitters. They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during such things as exercise, excitement, pain, eating spicy foods, love, sex – especially during orgasm and which resemble opiates in their ability to produce analgesia (pain killing effects) and a feeling of well-being.
The more intense the exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food, love, sex/ orgasm the more the flow of Endorphins and we can, in the right circumstances, experience an “endorphin rush”. Something often sort by some people.
Arguably, on a physical level at least, any possible attraction to pain is more likely an attraction to these pain-killing, well-being sensation giving endorphins. And folk who place their bodies in extreme situations or who are into S&M, being spanked etc, doing so for the physical response rather than the emotional or psychological responses are often doing so because of these endorphins.
So how does this play out in our Self-harming scenario?
Well think about this if you will…
Very often the need to self-harm comes from a need to feel or release. The need to feel something or to release the feelings that we believe are somehow locked up inside. We view, or believe we experience, in the act of self-harming that ‘feeling something’ or that ‘release of those feelings’. But what we are actually feeling, what we are actually experiencing is a combination of the pain and indeed the flow of those endorphins and that can make for a dangerous and addictive cocktail.
And on top of this we need to consider and be mindful of what happens once we have self-harmed. We often feel guilty or ashamed don’t we? We often also experience a low.
Part of this is down to our psychological and emotional response to the actions that we instinctively know inside that we should not have done and part of it is because the relative ‘high’ that we experienced through the release of those endorphins has now gone and so not only are we back to square one but we are now having to face the additional concern, guilt or shame that we are experiencing as a result of our actions.
So let’s also look at those emotional and psychological aspects…
The Emotional and Psychological
As I said, we are all different, and there can without doubt be different motivations behind self-harming.
For some it is that release or need to feel which I spoke of earlier. For others it is a need to express. For others it is a need to be punished or to punish others by punishing ourselves.
These can be, and often are, frustration based. Frustration at circumstances and situations, frustration as a result of not being able to get what we need from other sources or frustration with ourselves.
How many of us, who self-harm, can’t cope with something and as a result of that feel the need to go and self-ham? How many of us who self-harm are angry at ourselves or others and so go and punish ourselves – or indirectly those others by hurting the person they love – by self-harming? How many of us feel the need to express or release our inner often locked up and unexpressed feelings through self-harming.
Could it be that for those of us who feel the need to be punished or to punish, that pain response is the payment we feel we need to make and the endorphin response mentioned above is confirmation that the payment is made and everything is ‘ok’ now?
Could it be that for those of us who feel the need to experience feelings but who experience a lack of them that pain and the endorphin flow coupled together achieves this?
We need to be very mindful here, I believe, that self-harm isn’t only self-injury! It can take numerous forms. But what I am discussing here – primarily as a result of the conversation I mentioned above – are those forms for which pain features as a very real aspect of it and which appears to be such a key element.
There is, I am convinced, no doubt that pain can be life-affirming. After all you have to be alive in order to feel pain don’t you? And this is certainly a part of it all. Indeed the comment that inspired this entire post was this, “One thing I would like to explore more is why things that make us feel better usually involve pain. I have discussed with friends before why we need to feel like we’re dying in order to feel alive.”
“A beautiful thing never gives so much pain as failing to see or hear it.” Michelangelo
Pain is life affirming! Especially physical pain. Physical pain is tangible and therefore has a very real attraction to where the intangible is present. It can seemingly fill the deepest of voids and let’s be real here, since we are discussing this candidly, the tangible presence of physical pain can fill the intangible void created by psychological and emotional pain.
But as true as this is the question as to be – should we allow it to?
As someone who has struggled with self-harming I do, I believe, understand, at least in part, the attraction of that physical pain and indeed those endorphins. But I am convinced that there are far better, far healthier ways of dealing with the needs and issues behind the desire or need for physical pain.
And here is a basic truth and something that I think we really need to consider.. Earlier I stated my belief that “the tangible presence of physical pain can fill the intangible void created by psychological and emotional pain.” But whatever way we look at it, the truth is that it is a wrong and unhealthy approach to a problem or a set of problems that need addressing correctly.
That problem or set of problems is, in my opinion, “where is that intangible void created by psychological or emotional pain” coming from?
And the correct response is, in my opinion, not to fill the void with tangible physical pain but to address that void itself and to remove it.
So there you have it. One man’s take on some ‘Pain-full’ truths about self-harming. Let me know what you think as I really am interested in your opinions.