“Janelle, if we waited for you to want to stop hurting yourself, we’d be waiting forever,” my therapist said. I wish I could say that she only had to say it to me once. As with me and my stubbornness to let go of my self harm, it took a few times over the years before I followed through and “got it.”
What my therapist was trying to tell me was that I did not have to want to stop hurting myself to actually stop hurting myself. I can both want to hurt myself and keep myself safe (a dialectic for anyone who knows DBT). She was asking me to trust her and trust the people in my life who cared about me when they said that hurting myself was dangerous, unhealthy and unkind. It was a behavior that may have helped me through some difficult times but was now creating difficult times. She was telling me to stop hurting myself whether I believed I would or should stop.
Part of me knew that what I was doing was not right, but I always had an excuse.
- I just have to do it one more time – I haven’t hurt myself bad enough yet.
- I have to do it. I can’t survive without doing it.
- It’s my body. Nobody else should care. I can do whatever I want to myself.
- I’ll stop after I work on my……. self esteem, eating disorder, anxiety, marriage…..
- I don’t like or care about myself so it doesn’t matter if I still hurt myself.
I see those things now as lies and procrastination. Did I want my pain to end? Of course! Did I want to stop feeling ashamed? Stop having to explain wounds and scars? Stop damaging relationships and jeopardizing my jobs? You bet I did! But to take the risk to get through my overwhelming and challenging emotions without hurting myself seemed impossible, especially for a so-called screw-up like me. My self harm was my best friend, my got-to, my crutch. As much as I wanted my pain to end, I did not want to actually stop hurting myself nor did I think I could.
Good thing that my therapist believed in me, challenged me and encouraged me (we all need a good support person!). I put my trust in what she was asking me to do. I took an “I will not hurt myself at all costs, no matter what it takes!” attitude. I started to actually use the skills I learned over the years. Moment by moment, day by day, like it or want to do it or not, I kept myself safe. It was not easy, especially in those first days and weeks. Then days and weeks turned into months and into years.
I understand now that while I was hurting myself, I was a body, mind, heart and spirit constantly under attack. A person in that state will be depressed and anxious and not feel good about herself. I was not going to find some “fix,” some magic cure to my self esteem problems, some magic motivation to stop hurting myself while I was already under attack. I had to just do it.
As I practiced life without hurting myself, I noticed how I felt more relaxed and less anxious. I had more confidence and much more hope. Instead of using my energy to hurt myself and let depression suck up all my motivation to get better, I used my energy to do things to help other people. I started writing my book which I hope to use to encourage others. Through all that, I started to actually like myself and forgive myself. When I told my story to a dining hall full of women in treatment for mental health issues, with all sincerity I breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Now I just want to be nice to myself.”
I believe you can get to that point, too. I also believe that before you can want to be nice to yourself, you must practice being nice to yourself. It’s hard work. It takes bravery, courage, trust and strength – all things I know you possess! You don not have to want to stop hurting yourself to stop hurting yourself. Don’t wait! The time is now! You got this!