Pooky Ponders – Big Questions with Brilliant People

Why Do People Self-Harm?

October 04, 2022 Dr Pooky Knightsmith Season 8 Episode 4
Pooky Ponders – Big Questions with Brilliant People
Why Do People Self-Harm?
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I’m exploring why people self-harm.  If we don’t understand the reasons underlying self-harm, it’s very to move towards healthier coping mechanisms.


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Why do people self harm? I wanted to explore this question with you today because I've been thinking about how it's super important that we understand the why before we look at the how on a whole range of issues. Though today, I was thinking about it with regards to emotionally based school avoidance kids who are anxious to go to school and how we can't think about how to support them to go to school, unless we understand why they currently can't.

But it's the same with self-harm and unless we understand why a young person is self-harming and we try to get. Bit curious about that and figure out what's going on, what need it's meeting for them. It's really, really difficult for them, for us, for the team around them to support a child to change that behavior.

So we really have to understand the why. The other reason why I think this is important to explore is just because I get faced. So often with people who go, why, why do people self harm? And they just don't get it. And I understand that if it's not something that has impacted on you, it probably seems like, mm, a bit of an odd thing to do, perhaps it's, it's just hard to understand.

So I'm gonna share some of the common reasons that young people, in fact, people of all ages, we can all be affected by self-harm. It's something I have been affected by an. Heard and work with every day to avoid. Um, but why people. Might self harm. So these are ideas that have been shared from young people.

These are ideas and themes that come up again and again and again, but of course could be applied over a life course. If you do one thing to try to improve your understanding about self-harm. I do think listening to this podcast or similar, just to try and understand the why will really, really help.

What you'll find is that once you have a bit more understanding about the reasons behind the self harm, suddenly you'll have so many more ideas about. To support. Oh, and before I jump in a quick plug, I have a new ebook, um, which you can download for your Kindle about self-harm aimed at parents and carers.

Um, and actually, uh, I've currently got that open in front of me and I'm using that to inspire this podcast today, but there's also a whole bunch of practical stuff about what to do next and so on. So why do people self-harm. The reason I hear more often than any other is about control. So in particular, as young people come towards kind of adolescence and they're trying to become more independent, find themselves, they want to take a bit of control.

This often actually coincides with the time in their life. When they seem to feel like they have less control than any other time, things are really timetabled. Perhaps they're coming towards things like exams, they're being told what to do. It feels like, and they just. Kind of assert some control in their lives.

Now, one of the things that we can control, even as a young person, when lots of stuff seems to happen to us rather than with us, um, one of the things we can control is what happens to our body. We can control if it is hurt or not what it does, whether it is fed or not, whether we exercise it or not. So taking control through our body and whether or not we hurt it.

Whether we let it sleep, whether we feed it is something that some young people will do. In addition to generally wanting to take control and feeling that, you know, we wanna take more control of our surroundings at a time when we're trying to become independent. Other people who might look to seek this kind of control include those for whom life is quite chaotic.

So in particular, I often hear this from children and young people who are in care, who might move from home to home, to home, and it might feel like there's lots in their life. That is out of control. That's unpredictable and the self-harm can be more predictable. Um, also true sometimes for people who live in a chaotic environment generally.

So looking for control is the number one reason, um, that I hear. next, a release and communication of feelings. So for some people who struggle to communicate and express how they're feeling in another way, self-harm can do that really effectively. Um, it can kind of show. How they feel. So some of us will do this through words.

Some of us might do it through art. Some of us might do it through music, but for some people who don't have access to any of those means they haven't learnt how to use those ways. They haven't thought about doing those ways. For whatever reason, they've not found other channels for expressing and communicating how they feel hurting themselves, physically showing that pain, um, is something that can improve quite effective.

Another reason that many people give for self-harm is turning emotional pain into physical pain. Now emotional pain is so challenging and if we've got challenging experiences, memories, Thoughts feeling stuff going round and round in our head that really, really hurts. It can be hard to know what to do with that.

It can be hard to manage that. And sometimes translating that emotional pain into physical pain can really help. It gives us a focus. It gives us something that we can understand a little bit better. And actually it sort of gives us something we can fix because it's a little bit easier in some ways to.

Ah, there's a cut. I know what to do with that. I know how to take care of that. Whereas emotional pain can feel quite nebulous and big and wibbly, um, wibbly. That's a really technical term and we just don't quite know what to do with it. So sort of traumatic experiences or underlying distress sometimes we'll get translated into physical pain.

Rather than that emotional pain. And some people will talk about things like trying to cut away that pain. And when we step back from it and we look at it logically, of course you can't cut away your emotional pain, but we have to remember, this is really, really complicated stuff. And it might feel that way for a young person in that moment when they're hurting themselves.

Another reason I hear a lot is about punishment. So children and young people, or indeed adults might use self-harm as a form of self punishment. I tend to see two different distinct groups here. So we've got our kind of perfectionists, our high achievers for whom nothing ever feels quite right. Quite good enough.

The kid who only gets 95% on a test and then will deny themselves sleep, deny themselves food, cut themselves, do something to punish themselves. For what they consider to be a failure where for many people it might be seen as a great success. So punishment when not living up to one's own standards, often alongside perfectionism.

And then the other group who I see, who tend to punish themselves are very sadly, those who have experienced a great deal of punishment from others. So our children, perhaps you've got a history of. Dramatic abuse, whether physical or emotional, psychological, those children who have experienced punishment and have kind of learnt that they think that they deserve to be punished.

And so where their abuser leaves off, or sometimes even alongside continuing abuse that young person. May regularly punish themselves. It can be just a cycle. They've got into something. They believe that they deserve and breaking out of that cycle and helping them to understand that they don't deserve to be hurt is really, really important.

But that, that kind of punishment feeling they've let people down feeling they deserve nothing more feeling they deserve to be hurt. Um, can sit at the heart of self harm for some people. Some young people talk about self-harming because they don't have any other options. They've got nowhere else to turn.

They don't have a better solution. And this is quite common. And actually, if you find that this is at the nub for a young person, that you are supporting, this is kind of good news. I mean, it's horrible to hun understand that about child, that they, they just dunno. To manage their problem, but that they've turned to self harm because perhaps their friends have done it.

They've heard about it in the media. It's really, really well known as a potential coping strategy amongst young people, but what's sometimes less known is other healthier coping strategies. But the good news, why it's good news. It's good news because this is kind of like one of the most fixable, this is not like, oh, we've got to work out how to deal with some massive underlying trauma or what have you.

This is a child who's just perhaps trying to. With the day to day, but doesn't have good strategies. They haven't learned them yet. In particular young people who face adversity for the first time, who've not developed good coping mechanisms might find that something like self-harm comes to mind first because it's spoken about a lot.

They know a lot about it. Um, and they just need to develop alternatives. They just, I hate the word. Just not just need to develop alternatives, but the good news here is there are loads of alternatives we can help them to develop. So for some young people, it's just. They don't have other strategies. So they turn to self-harm, it's the best method they have right now.

And that's really crucial to understand self-harm is the best method they have right now. Our job with them then becomes to go, okay, what other methods of coping could we explore that might work as well, or at least approaching as well as the self. One thing, just to understand there about self-harm as a general kind of coping strategy, is that for our generation coming up through right now, self-harm is so common, so prevalent, so kind of understood by them as a potential coping strategy that whilst to us, to our generation, to you listening, perhaps this seems like a strange thing to turn to and something that feels completely alien to you.

Does not feel that way for your typical 12, 13, 14, 15 year old. Right now, this is just something that people do. It seems quite normalized to them. And so they may well turn to it. They might try it once or twice and find them for them. It doesn't do that much. And then we don't worry so much. We do look for other coping strategies, but for some it.

Becomes habit forming, but yeah, for them, it might feel as kind of normal. If you like, as for my generation, uh, going back a couple of decades, uh, people might have tried, uh, using kind of soft drugs. They might have smoked marijuana. For example, if feeling down and trying to deal with stress, that was a very, very commonly accepted way of managing stress.

When I was younger, it was something that many, many people did and self harm feels like that for our young people. Now, just to help you understand. To go to, even though for you, it might feel very, very alien. Another reason that, uh, young people will sometimes give for their self-harm. And again, not just young people, young people is my focus, but self-harm affects everyone at every age.

And maybe you are listening to this because it affects you. And if so, I hear you. It's really tough being an adult who self-harms because people like me. And we talk about self-harming young people all the time, because it's so prevalent. Um, but when it's you, it's affecting, you can feel quite alone. It feels like you are the only adult in the world dealing with this.

And it's like some kind of kid's problem that you should have grown out of. And I certainly, yeah. Felt very alone with it when I was, uh, struggling with it particularly badly in my thirties. So apologies. I am not meaning to add to that. People is just my, my kind of my, my area, uh, that I tend to work with, but all of these ideas could apply to adults too.

So another reason that people not just young people come up with, uh, when, when exploring why they might self-harm is to feel something. So this tends to apply for those people who are kind of living in that, uh, Bell jar of depression, where we feel totally numb and alien from the world, quite a lot of feelings around sort of, uh, dissociation and derealization and depersonalization.

There's a whole bunch of words that we're gonna need to look up and define another time, feeling distant from the world where everything feels a bit kind of, Ooh, not really there, not really feeling anything. Then sometimes the one thing that can break through and can make us feel alive. It's pain. Pain is sometimes the only thing that a young person or a person feels able to feel.

And whilst that might not be nice, it might help them to feel just a bit more connected with the world. So it can be kind of grounding, help us to feel here, help us to remember. Yeah, I'm alive. Um, and so for some people, that's the, um, that's the reason. Other people will self-harm as a form of, um, really dysfunctional mindfulness.

So escaping from difficult feelings or memories by focusing totally on something else for a moment. So like that moment when you stub your toe and whatever else was in your head, the moment you stub your toe, all you can think about is how much your toe hurts. And often there's that big welling up of kind of angry.

You wanna kind of hit something and you're so focused on the toe. That's really horrible, but. If the stuff that was in your head wasn't oh gosh. I must remember to add oranges to the shopping list. If instead it was, I'm really scared about what's gonna happen when I go, uh, to school today because I've been being bullied by my friends and I'm terrified that this is going to happen again.

And you've got those kinds of horrible. Thoughts and feelings going around and around in your head, or maybe you've been experiencing abuse and you're scared about what's going to happen next, or what will happen if someone finds out or whatever, maybe you've got really, really horrible, hard stuff going around and around and around and around in your head.

And then you stub your toe and all you can think about is the pain and the anger that goes with the stubbing of the toe. That's kind of a relief. So it doesn't feel nice, but it feels better than the really troubling thoughts that filled your head before. And that. Feeling can be gained through self harm.

Of course. So a young person might choose to hurt themselves, might find it helpful to hurt themselves because that pain, that focus on just that pain for a few moments gives them relief. From those thoughts, those feelings, those memories that are in their heads. So like mindfulness escapes us from all that other stuff helps us to focus in on something.

But as I say, a dysfunctional form, because it's doing harm rather than only helping it is doing. Good. It is helping. There are positives in there for the young person. And when we are thinking about how to break the cycle, we've gotta think about how it's, how to carry those positives forwards for that young person.

But, um, it's uh, yes, it's it's so it's like mindfulness, but it's also doing harm. As an example, um, I quote in the book actually, which I think maybe, um, helps to illustrate this really nicely. So this quote from a young person who kindly shared her thoughts with me, all I could think was mum is dead. Mom is dead.

Mum is dead over and over for hours, days, weeks, then I burned myself and all I could think about was the pain for a few minutes. I didn't think about my mum being dead at all. I did it again and again. So I could go back to that place. So that young person, so eloquently described the escape that self-harm gave her just for a few minutes, from that awful reality, that she was not able to change that her mom had died.

The final reason, um, that our share today, and there are so many and self-harm takes. So many different shapes and forms. And even when it looks similar, the underlying reasons can be so very varied. But the final reason I'm gonna share today is sadly to access help. So lots of young people in particular have learnt that the only way to get help.

Is to harm themselves. Sometimes that is a reality. Sometimes it really is true that in order to get help, actually there needs to be some physical evidence that that help is needed or some way of getting that appropriate attention and support input. And self-harm can actually trigger that referral, trigger that report, uh, that support, trigger that care that's needed.

And sometimes it's perceived and it's that a young person isn't aware of how else to get help, who to ask where to go, what needs to happen, but their perception. Is their reality and many young people that I've spoken to have talked about how hard it is for them to get help, but they know that if they hurt themselves, maybe they've seen this happen for a friend that actually they will get the help that they need.

And so they feel that self-harm is a way in to accessing help, which can be hard. To come by. So again, that gives us ideas about how we might help that young person, how can we enable them to ask for help, to seek help, to get the support that they need without actually physically having to hurt themselves.

So hopefully that gives you sort of. Some ideas about the, the why behind self-harm and we can absolutely explore in future episodes what we do, how we break that cycle. And as I say, if you, if you want help in the meantime, then the, uh, ebook, uh, comes out in just a few days, actually. Um, uh, The the, the ebook will explore all these things.

It sounds like an awful plug. It's 2 99. It's not, it's not gonna break the bank for anyone. And if you haven't got 2 99 and need a PDF, then, then drop me an email or ping me and I'll, I'll send you a PDF for free. Um, but there are lots of ideas in there about breaking that cycle. We can absolutely explore them in a podcast if that's helpful.

But I do think that before we think about how do we. Got to, got to, got to try to understand the why the other thing we might choose to explore. If you find it helpful and, uh, connect with me on, on socials or drop me a line on patron, if you would like me to do this, the other thing we can explore is how do we work out?

The why? So, you know, I'm saying here, well, we need to understand why young person is self-harming. It's not quite a straightforward. It's just saying to a young person say, why are you self-harming? And that a young person will very eloquently come. With something like that, quote from this young lady about her mom being dead, that takes a lot of reflection, a lot of self understanding that young lady will have been on quite a journey to have got to a point where she could express that at the beginning.

Often it's just a mess, quite frankly. And a young person probably can't tell you why they're self-harming they probably don't even know. So getting to the why isn't necessarily easy. At all, and that's something we might explore together, but it's really important that we do look to get to that. Why otherwise we end up trying to solve the wrong problem.

You've heard here, like a whole range of different things that might be going on for a young person underlying that self-harm and if we just make an assumption, ah, this is a young person trying to seek control. Then we might try and support them with coping strategies that just don't scratch that itch because if they're not trying to seek control, if I don't know, they're trying to feel something because they feel numb the whole time.

Then the strategies that we try to introduce them to simply may not help them. I hope there was something in there that was helpful for you. Do you keep feeding back? I'm very conscious of the fact that my podcast I've, I've picked up my old podcast title and strapline and it's, uh, Pooky, ponders, big questions with brilliant people.

And in this kind of slow, soft launch of the return thus far, it's just me, which feels a little egotistical because. We are asking some big questions. Um, but I would not claim to be a brilliant person. I will be getting other people in. Although I think I will continue to do some solo episodes, but really I wanna hear from you guys, what do you want?

Long episodes, short episodes, episodes with other people rambling kind of explorative episodes where we really go like off. Topic and just give you something kind of nice and easy listening to listen to or stuff that goes really deep and hard on specific topics. That's kind of more how to like today.

What would you like? Maybe you want a combination of all of those things and that's cool. I'm open to a. All different possibilities. I just would like to serve you as best as I can. Um, and, uh, be on this journey with you all. Um, thank you for listening and until next time, take care.