This post contains potentially disturbing material surrounding the topics of self-harm, self-hatred, and other self-destructive topics that might be troublesome to readers. If you or someone you know engages in this behavior, please know that you are not alone and there is help out there. Here’s a wonderful resource to get started.
I sometimes come across as a know-it-all. Ash has experienced it first-hand and it’s only a matter of time before Jai tells me that I don’t know what I am talking about. Dunning Kruger is real with me. It’s one of the reasons why I loved teaching and I love blogging.
But when it comes to this month’s topic of taking care of yourself as you undergo a personal growth journey, know that it is actually coming from a place of experience.
I have experienced a lot of pain in my life, many of it directed towards myself as a coping mechanism for emotions that got to be too much. It wasn’t until I embraced self-acceptance and self-compassion that I was finally able to push through my journey and fully embrace who I wanted to become.
For today, I wanted to touch base on my own experience engaging in self-compassion and provide some light as to why I am constantly pushing it as a way of thinking, especially with a chronic illness.
The Trouble with Emotions
Emotions are so sticky and frustrating at times.
Growing up I never received the necessary training on how to effectively and healthfully manage my emotions. In New England, any sort of expression of emotion was frowned down upon so I learned to suppress my emotions as much as possible. Because I did not have a good outlet to manage my emotions, I turned them inward and started taking all the frustration out on myself.
Self-Harm as a Coping Mechanism
Rather than finding a healthy way to manage my emotions, I found that hurting myself was the only way to let all the negative emotions out. It was partially as a form of relief, but also a form of personal punishment.
I felt like I deserved the pain I caused because of something minor I did. I had a tendency to burn myself with matches and candle wax. I would spend hours picking at my face for perceived imperfections, not even stopping after I drew blood. I graduated at the end of high school to cutting my upper arms and hips, with some scars still there today.
I’ve seen other examples of self-harm online and mine were never extreme. While I still have scars, I felt like I was an imposter, a wannabe looking for attention when I hurt myself. Yet I hid my scars and scabs so no one knew what was happening. It was my secret and I did not want to have to answer questions.
I was doing this because I did not love myself and I needed to find a way to help me overcome this unhealthy behavior.
Therapy but then What?
When one self-harms, the first piece of advice everyone tells them is to go to therapy. Therapy is wonderful if you have a good guide in your therapist, but finding a “good” therapist is a lot of work. Especially when you are emotionally drained and the mere thought of looking for a therapist is overwhelming.
I am not deriding therapy, in fact, I absolutely encourage it as a means to effectively and healthfully work through any difficult and frustrating emotions you are feeling.
Here’s the “but”: therapy is a partnership.
You enter a relationship with your therapist and if it’s not a beneficial, productive, and has an unhealthy dynamic, then it is important to look for a new therapist. Therapy should be supportive and productive and the dynamic between you and the therapist must be a healthy one.
It took me several therapists and therapy styles before I settled on one that works for me. While I won’t say what style it is, I can say that without my therapist telling me directly, the focus in each session is self-compassion. We work together on finding ways to love myself, imperfections and all.
I think my experience with various therapists and styles helped me be receptive to the idea that my imperfections are part of what make me, me. Perfection, though we may desire it, is rather boring. The asymmetry in my life, my flaws, mistakes, bad behaviors: that’s what makes me an interesting person.
A therapy style that focuses on self-compassion may not be for you. You may want to do that outside of therapy, or not at all, and that is okay. It’s really about finding what works for you and getting yourself into space where you are able to love yourself.
You’re Never Prepared
Whether you are in therapy or not, when you are starting a personal journey to wellness, a lot of junk comes up and that can distract you from continuing with your personal goals. I say junk because it really can be clutter that serves to distract you from making positive changes.
I am not demeaning whatever that “junk” may be because it might be something you need to deal with, but the important thing is to take a moment (or month or year) to really work through the stuff weighing you down and finding a way to let it go or work with it.
This isn’t saying “just move on” or “just get over it.” Absolutely not. Some things you can’t get over. Some things are so ingrained within us and define us or are a part of us that there is no way to “get over it.” Rather, it’s about recognizing what you can change and what you have to work with and learning to love yourself through self-compassion to help manage it.
Dealing with crippling depression? The last thing you want or are able to do is to say “I am worthwhile and I deserve to love myself.” But if you are able to take a single moment in the darkness to say it, it may bring a small comfort to help you get up for a few minutes to work on something before retreating. It’s about taking those small steps, no matter how small they may be, that can get you moving in a healing direction.
You are never prepared for what comes up when working through things, or trying to make self-improvement changes. I have found that I can be going along thinking everything is okay and then something pops up that distracts me and demands my attention. That’s why I’ve had to reframe how I look at my whole journey.
Self-compassion helps with that re-framing.
How I Deal with Emotions Now
Since working with self-compassion on a more conscience level I have found that my desire and action for self-harm has lessened greatly. I still instinctively hit my head or leg if I have a particularly distressing thought, but it is no longer on a daily basis, multiple times a day.
Now, I have a split second between that thought and my arm raising to stop myself. I can use a mantra I’ve created for myself to stop the behavior before I do anything. I self-soothe myself into a more calm state by putting my words and situation in proper perspective. There are still times where I will react to my thoughts too fast, but once I realize what is happening, I can stop it from continuing.
I am also finding my negative thoughts/actions in previously emotionally charged situations lowered. Before I might dwell on something for hours on end, get territorial over something extremely petty, or imagine hypothetical scenarios with confrontational outcomes; but now I just let it go quickly. I still may have a minute our two where I think about it, but it no longer consumes me in the way it once did.
In short, I feel healthier and less stressed than even a year ago. The other day I came to a wonderful realization about how well I am managing my MS (more on that in an upcoming post) and this is without medication. I can’t even begin to imagine where I will be when I start up my MS medication again.
I may be unstoppable.
Self-Compassion is a Journey, not a Destination
Once you’ve come around to the way of thinking and embracing self-compassion know that that’s not the end of it. Self-compassion is something that I’ve had to practice with myself every day and mindfully practice. There are days where I don’t think about it or it is unnecessary, but there are other days where an old memory will pop up or I do something that I regret and want to take out on myself.
It’s in those moments that I have to remind myself that I am worthy of my love and I need to be kinder to myself.
There isn’t going to be a moment where I can say “I can stop being self-compassionate now, I’m healed!”
Life is, well, a life-long journey. In 20, 30, or possibly 50 years I will still need to engage in self-compassion. It will hopefully come more quickly to me, almost reflexive because of all the work I am doing now, and I may not even recognize that I am doing it.
Regardless, now that I’ve discovered this healthy method for dealing with my emotions and feelings, I have no plans of turning back.
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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton