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People mostly understand I think when someone becomes psychoticgets stuck in a deep depression or has mood swings. These are exaggerations of normal states of mind—everyone has felt blue at sometime or another—everyone has felt euphoric or energized at least once. Though loose, psychotic-style thinking is not something that everyone has experienced directly, at least the idea that people can experience hallucinations and delusions is familiar to most.
This basic understanding is not often there when people are confronted with someone who is cutting or burning or otherwise traumatizing themselves. People don't have good reference points to use so as to understand what motivates self-injury or what people who self-injure are trying to accomplish.
Trying to Understand Someone Who Self-Injures That acts of self-injury are so often bloody and horrifying that it makes it harder for people to be thoughtful about what these acts mean. There is a tendency to panic when you see someone you care about bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, or covered with scars.
Such panic interferes with thinking, and makes it harder for people to understand the motives behind self-injury. Further complicating the matter is the way that self-injury looks like it must be a suicide attempt even though it usually isn't.
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An act of self-injury which might make sense if understood as a suicide attempt become all the more difficult to comprehend when the self-injurious person denies that they are trying to kill themselves and is telling the truth.
So why do people self-injure? What are they trying to accomplish when they harm themselves?
Release tension associated with strong emotions or overwhelming thoughts. Feel something physical when they are otherwise dissociated and numb.
Experience a temporary but intense feeling of euphoria that occurs in the immediate aftermath of self-harm. To Regain Control; To Shift Attention People sometimes harm themselves because by doing so, they are able to gain a subjective sense of control over chaotic internal emotions and thoughts.
Seizing this control involves shifting the focus of their attention away from something more troubling towards something less troubling. Cutting or burning one's self causes physical pain which is a very compelling and strong sensation.
Self-injurers sometimes use this pain sensation to override painful background chatter that fills their minds. For example, they may have been traumatized by a rape experience such that they have PTSD symptoms and constantly be replaying that rape in their minds.
By cutting themselves, they are able to refocus their attention on the pain of the cut and for a short while, experience relief from the rape trauma. To Release Tension A variation on the theme of regaining control, is the idea that people self-injure as a means of releasing tension.
Sometimes an aspect of a person's chaotic internal experience is that feelings and thoughts build up a subjective state of tension or arousal that motivates people to do something to take action to reduce that tension or arousal.
Cutting or burning one's self can, apparently, serve such a tension-reducing function.
An example will serve to illustrate. I read an account of a young woman who was consumed with suicidal thoughts which pushed her towards a compulsive feeling that she should end her life. She coped with this compulsion by cutting herself, which refocused her attention, however temporarily, away from her suicidal ideation.
This wasn't perhaps the most ideal coping solution in the world, but it was what she had come up with, and it was functioning to keep her alive. To Return From Numbness Traumatized people sometimes cope with their trauma by dissociating. Dissociation is a mental and emotional state where the normal unitary experience of consciousness gets chopped up into disconnected parts.
Feelings can also be dissociated or detached from the events that provoked them such as occurs in Depersonalization Disorder. So, a painful feeling associated with a traumatic memory might be detached from that memory such that the traumatized person remembers the event as though it happened in a movie; as though it happened to someone else and they were just watching it unfold, numb to the experience.
We're all familiar with the idea that it is painful to experience pain sensations. What people may not realize is that it is also painful to not feel anything. Dissociated people who feel largely emotionally numb are often in great pain of a sort.
Some of them will self-injure so as to generate a strong sensation that is capable of bringing them back to feeling something again.
There are variations on this theme. Not all numb dissociated people will use physical pain to "return"; some will use other strong sensations such as are afforded by drugs or sex, etc.
But some use physical pain.
This can be because they are not particularly good with words. It can be because they never learned for whatever reason what words to use to describe emotion.The evolution of Blade Runner and Frankenstein are parallels.
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James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation.