In this article I talk about why borderlines self-mutilate (self-injure) and how can they stop.
Pain: It cuts like a knife quite literally in the lives of many borderlines who self-abuse, self-injure, or self-mutilate. From my past experience I assert that self-injuring, cutting and the like, is the result of the transference of emotional pain into the physical realm which is a frantic effort to avoid feeling what is, in Borderline Personality Disorder the abandoned pain of those with BPD. Those diagnosed with BPD do not know how to effectively cope with their pain let alone how to heal it. The results of this are not only self-mutilation but are also the manipulation behind the borderline’s attempts to control what hurts on the inside by abandoning that and trying to control all that is on the outside of that pain. What is on the outside of borderline pain, is the borderline’s body, and the environment in which the borderline lives and the people in the borderline’s life.
Let me just qualify that any and all manipulation on the part of those with BPD, while the responsibility of those with BPD, has its motivation in attempts to cope and to survive. Borderline manipulation is not some calculated campaign to just hurt, abuse, or inflict suffering on others. This is not to say that what results from borderline manipulation that often hurts others is in any way justifiable.
In his book, “Lost In The Mirror”, Dr. Richard Moskovitz writes: “Perhaps the most shocking and mysterious of all borderline behaviour is self-mutilation. Whether burns or cuts or penetrating wounds, these self-inflicted injuries are the products of compulsion. Like other compulsions, a buildup of tension leads to an irresistible urge, and the tension is discharged by the act.” (Pages 71-72)
If you are borderline and you self-injure, self-harm or self-mutilate based upon my own past experience I would assert that you are doing that because you feel driven to. The impulses that are leading you to feel driven to hurt yourself are the by-products of your inability and or unwillingness to feel your feelings.
A continued refusal to feel, deal with and release your feelings is what leads to that buildup of tension inside that then leaves you with a familiar feeling of angst. It is an aggravated sense of something about to explode or implode if relief is not sought. It is a feeling that can leave you feeling out of control. When you self-injure yourself there is then this false sense of being in control. It gives you a sense of power. What it really represents is your helplessness in action, however. Cutting, or burning yourself is not the act of someone in control of themselves. Self harm or self injury is not the act of someone who even knows who they are. Self harm is the manifestation of the desperate pain of the lost self – a self that is lost as the result of the core wound of abandonment. It is surrender to one’s repressed emotions run wild and that are dysregulated inside.
Self-mutilation can be a way of trying to punish yourself for what you have done or what you feel guilty for as if you had done. Your guilt may be the result of something that you’ve recently done or it may be related to what happened to you as a child. Self-mutilation in the extreme, as in the sacrificing of a limb or a body part can be a way of attempting to set your past apart from the current chapter of your life. It can also be an attempt to purify yourself from what you feel is so wrong with you. Self-mutilation can also be a cry for help, and it can also be an attempt to re-direct pain.
Self harm is also steeped in the shame of abandonment.
When you feel intolerable emotional pain or distress you transfer those feelings into the realm of the physical by hurting yourself. It is also a way of saying loudly to the world around you without ever uttering a sound that you are in a tremendous amount of pain. Self-mutilation can also be a reenactment of earlier traumatic events that you experienced in the past – it is the remaining the legacy of abandonment in BPD.
In my past experience, years ago, when I had BPD, I would cut because I was that dissociated from my feelings. All I could feel was agitated, angry, rage, or “bugged”. I could not identify any further than that what I was actually feeling. The sensation of being “bugged” would escalate inside of me until I felt compelled to act out. I would then cut. Cutting was how I cried. As the blood dripped, it was like tears cleansing the ocean of my psychic pain. After I would cut, I then would take care of myself. I had learned how to simulate nurturing or soothing myself (my physical self only) by taking care of the wounds that I would inflict upon myself. I could not feel the emotional pain. I did not understand it or have much, if any concept of it back then.
In order to be able to stop the self-mutilating behavior you must come to realize, from the inside out, that you hurt very very deeply. Your wounds are emotional (intrapsychic) and you are transferring them out into the world of the physical in a maladaptive effort to soothe, nurture and take care of yourself. However, if you self-injure you are further hurting yourself and you are betraying your inner child in much the same way as you were betrayed as a young child. It is in the way then that you become your own abuser and continue to do to yourself what others have done to you in the past. There is no self-respect in this. There is no self-like, no self-love, no tolerance or true understanding of self either. Authentic or True Self is lost to the borderline. Because you do not know who you really are or feel connected to your self you set yourself – your lost authentic self further adrift and you betray yourself each and every time you choose to take your very real emotional pain and make it physical. This betrayal is also a re-abandonment of your inner child. To get on the road to recovery from BPD it is necessary to stop self harming and to engage to the process that is the journey From False Self To Authentic Self – the journey of getting in touch with the inner child in BPD through the making of new and more conscious decisions.
If you are borderline you are already deeply emotionally scarred. If you are a borderline who is self-injuring you are adding to those scars. You are sending a message to yourself that you do not matter, that you not worthwhile, that you cannot be loved. You are choosing to be as intolerant toward yourself as those who hurt you in the past were.
I know only too well from past experience that when you are in the cycle of self-harm you feel trapped by the compulsions and you may not understand why you do what you do at all. For years I had not clue either. I would just do it and live with it. I did come to learn, though, over time that my injuring and cutting myself was in fact a choice. I hated myself and I was trying to punish myself further for being the child that my family deemed so unlovable as to sexually, physically, emotionally and verbally abuse me. Thinking that way was my surrendering to my past. It was tantamount to my throwing up my arms and saying: “I am not going to grow up. I am not going to take care of myself. I cannot be anything but what they say I was/or am. I am helpless. I am powerless.” Of course at the time, in the throes of black and white thinking I thought that by cutting and injuring myself I was powerful and in control and taking care of myself. I was wrong.
If you are borderline and you are still cutting, or self-injuring in any way ask yourself what you are gaining by doing this. When was the last time you cried? What do you so fear about crying? Do you feel a void where that hurt screaming little child could be crying a river? Your hurt is real. Your pain is real. Your pain is yours. It is a part of you until you learn to feel it and release it in healthy ways. Your pain is not some tremendous outside force that can take you over and annihilate you. NO! It feels that way though because you have alienated yourself from yourself, from your pain, from your hurt from the very fact that you did nothing wrong, you did not deserve what was done to you as a young child. When you (in therapy) seek to get to know your emotions you will come to find, as I did, that they are not some monster lying in wait for you (no-that was the abuser in your childhood) but that these emotions you have are a very real and integral part of who you are. They are yours. You can feel them. You can work them through, learn how to cry and grieve and to let them go.
You do not have to cut out what you feel. You do not have to punish yourself for what others have done to you. You do not have to hurt anymore than you already do. It is ironic how borderlines having experienced a lion-share of pain, find pain so overwhelming and scary that they dissociate from it, deny it, and avoid it….suffering excruciatingly all the while from it. Then instead of working to lessen it they choose instead to multiply it over and over again by self-injuring.
You hurt enough. I came to this realization one night and it was the last time I ever cut. When I realized that what was driving me to cut was pain, emotional pain, I knew that I could never hurt myself that way again. I had been hurt enough – I hurt enough! Sadly, though as part of the borderline’s struggle with anything and everything in life “not being enough” it is also true of the pain that one is in. Pain becomes a way of life for a borderline. It is sought out time and time and time again through self-injury, suicide attempts, acting in or acting out, damaging and/or losing relationships and self-imposed isolation. Why? Because pain is familiar and the mind-set (within the cognitive distortions of this personality disorder) fuel the belief that this is what one deserves and that this is how life is. Those with BPD are not only used to pain or to feeling numb but in not knowing how to effectively cope with it in healthier ways they trap themselves, bound to it, through polarized and negative thinking – thinking that often blocks out any hope for relief, change, and recovery.
So, with this pain, this utter agony, the borderline continues to add to it until he/she can begin to gain insight into this cycle. If you are borderline and you are abusing yourself and or others ask yourself what hurts so much and why? Keep asking yourself until you begin to grasp the answer. Life is not something to be merely endured it is to be experienced and lived. You cannot do this when you continue to choose to hurt yourself in the name of “helping yourself”. Much of this entire pattern also involves manipulating others as well. In order to heal this self abuse, and the manipulating of others and walk out of the relational nightmare that you are in when trying to relate to yourself and to others you must stop trying to control everything outside of yourself.
You must stop converting your emotional pain into the physical realm. You must learn to feel from the inside out and to control your triggered dysregulated emotions from the inside out while letting go of all that is outside of yourself because what is outside of yourself is also outside of your control. You have the power to change your life. You can empower yourself. You really can. It is up to you. Do you hurt enough yet? Are you ready to stop putting your pain outside of yourself, through hurting your body, manipulating others, and acting in or acting out in ways that hurt others. You are not your environment and it is not you. When you can come to know this you can then turn to the business of healing your internal environment which will render all other maladaptive coping mechanisms obsolete.
© Ms. A.J. Mahari October 30, 1999 with additions February 14, 2009