(Trigger warning: self-harm.)
The New York Times ran an informative and insightful essay from Shirley Manson, a middle-aged musician and member of the Scottish-American alternative rock band Garbage, about why she began self-harming in her teens—in the 1980s—and how she has stayed watchful for what she calls the “thought patterns” that led to her destructive behavior.
Manson writes that she was in her late teens when she first started cutting herself. She was in an abusive relationship with a man who cheated on her behind her back, among other hurtful things.
As we have written before, and as the National Alliance on Mental Illness notes on its website, self-harming behaviors in and of themselves don’t constitute a mental illness. Rather, they’re one result of a lack of coping skills. But even though it’s not an illness, someone hurting themselves, or even thinking about hurting themselves, is a sign that they’re in emotional distress.
A recent study, also reported in the New York Times, found that rates of non-suicidal self-harm among teens are higher than previously thought. Up to 30 percent of teen girls in some parts of the U.S. reported that they engaged in self-harm. Among boys the percentage is lower, but still, in some regions, almost 15 percent of boys have engaged in self-harm.
Because adolescents who engage in self-harm lack coping skills, they don’t know how else to relieve that emotional tension, so they relieve it in a negative way. As Manson describes in her essay, self-harm helped her express deep anger she harbored against the person who was hurting her. But turning that anger against herself cost her even more distress in the long run.
One thing we like about Manson’s essay is the way she describes how the self-harm ended: she started learning positive communication skills with a friend who, as she says, was “a loving, respectful person who also happened to be an incredible communicator.”
Relationships and community are important in healing mental illness. They don’t “fix” us, but they help us learn in safety. In a positive relationship, Manson learned to express her feelings in loving, compassionate, and healthy ways.
Effective communication—whether verbal or written, or via music, visual art, dance, or any other creative method—is a skill that can relieve immense pressure and also bring us closer to others. Because while self-harm hides our feelings from others, communication shares them. Others find out who we really are, and they also have a chance to relate their feelings to ours. We find out we’re not alone in this world!
Manson also talks about how, in adulthood, she has remained on the alert for the negative “thought patterns” that led her to hurt herself in adolescence. One of the most powerful and dangerous is comparing herself to other people, a common habit of perfectionists, who often feel like they’re never “enough.”
How does she remain positive about herself and her thinking? She writes,
I choose to speak up. … I believe it is not what we look like that is important, but who we are. It is how we choose to move through this bewildering world of ours that truly matters.
How do you cope with thought patterns that you know could be dangerous for you? What strategies do you use when you’re tempted to do something that you know you really don’t want to do? Let us know in the comments.