Challenges in not using self-harm as a coping strategy

There are many challenges to stopping self-harm.  The ones listed below are what I have to deal with most often:

Finding Effective Substitutions

Before I started therapy, anorexia, self-harm, dissociation, and switching were the only effective coping techniques in my tool box.  I used them relentlessly to block out the monsters in my mind.  And when that did not work, I isolated myself and developed OCD type rituals.

Therapy, partial programs, and a lot of personal research with books (and then the Internet) taught me a lot of useful coping techniques to help me understand that I did have feelings and how to safely express them in a healthy way.  The four main techniques I use are:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Self-Help Workbooks like: The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, The PTSD Handbook, and The Anorexia Workbook
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy
  • Internal Family Systems Therapy

I use “technique” here because each behavior, or group of behaviors, can be learned and used alone or in combination to create effective coping strategies tailored to individual needs.

Breaking Habits

According to scientific research (multiple sources), habits are easy to create and difficult to stop.  A habit can form after a few repetitions.  Breaking a habit can take a at least a month or longer.  Some habits are easy to break.  Others are not.  An addiction is more difficult to break than a habit.

When does a habit or a routine become an addiction?  I honestly don’t know.  But that is less important than understanding the how and why the habit or addiction was formed.  And what purpose it serves in one’s life.

A habit becomes an addiction when the habit starts to take over my life.  When all I can think about is the next opportunity to hurt myself,  Most of the time I used self-harm to help me feel in control of my environment while also distracting me from overwhelming emotions and extreme pain.  The anorexia nervosa was the worst one.  I started that when I was six years old and didn’t start recovery until I was twenty-one.  Twelve years later, I am officially recovered, or in remission.  Like alcoholism, an eating disorder never really goes away.  Relapse is always possible.

These days, my only self-harm habits are food and skin-related: scratching, clumsiness causing bruises, tearing at my nails, eating food that makes me feel  sick afterwards, etc.  And they only come out during a combination of the following situations:

  • feeling unsafe
  • backlash
  • anniversaries
  • bad triggers
  • body memories
  • emotional overload

Any one of these by themselves might cause me to use or feel the urge to use self-harm, but often do not.

I have a variety of strategies to help me when the urges come now.  Most of the time they work.  And when they don’t, I work hard to minimize the backlash that comes with using self-harm.

Relapse Backlash

These broad categories are based on my experiences and discussions with therapists. Please remember that as you read this section.

Anyone who has ever relapsed or failed at something has experienced the negative emotions and thoughts that come with a setback (aka mistake).  Some people and move past these easily because they learned positive, healthy ways to cope from role models.

Others pretend these feelings don’t exist, put them away someplace and forget (or try) their existence; then these people put on a “brave face” and work harder, obsess over mistakes and solutions, to ensure success the next time.  They acknowledge the failure without blaming their sense of self; might or might not hold grudges; and often will try again or decide the task is not worth the time and effort so move on.

Then their are people like me (and maybe you too), survivors who for some reason or other (and to different degrees) have been taught that they do not have feelings; every setback is a failure because they, the human, is a failure and will never succeed; and success is not real success because their is always something wrong with how the task was accomplished; nothing they do is right or good enough, will ever be right or good enough.  And they always get punished for failure.

Backlash is just that: punishment for failure.  Self-inflicted or other-inflicted, it does not matter.  What matters is that some people are compelled to punish themselves for failure of any kind.  Often that punishment is physical; sometimes it is emotional or spiritual or a combination of these.

But punishing oneself for lapsing or relapsing starts a downward spiral back into addictive self-harm behaviors.  I know because I am struggling not to punish myself for relapsing over the last few weeks.

Alters

Many times, my parts and I are co-conscious.  This means we are all aware of what is happening around us – not a complete switch in personalities.  And different parts can/will take control of our body while someone else is in charge of speaking and interacting with outside people.

Many of my alters do not feel like other coping strategies are as effective of as what they already know and turn to like a blankie.  Or they are very young/old and have difficulty remembering the other strategies and techniques under stress.  If they remember the strategies and techniques, they also have to remember how to use them.

Teaching my child parts, adolescent parts, adult parts, and ageless parts these techniques while also working full time, managing day-to-day life, and writing this blog takes a lot of time, patience, and practice.  We practice when we can; try to treat ourselves gently, with compassion and empathy, when there is a set-back or a mistake.

Because it is never failure.  It is always an opportunity to learn.

Finding effective support with therapy

There are a lot of resources available for learning these techniques.  Therapy is not required.  Neither is participation in a program or a group.  But if you are like I was when I first started, working with a professional can help you learn these techniques while providing a safety net to help cope with the backlash, emotions, or memories that can appear as you move through this process.

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