Staying safe while hurting yourself
A few things to keep in mind should you decide that you do need to hurt yourself:
- Don’t share cutting implements with anyone; you can get the same diseases (hepatitis, AIDS, etc) addicts get from sharing needles.
- Try to keep cuts shallow. Keep first aid supplies on hand and know what to do in the case of emergencies.
- Do only the minimum required to ease your distress. Set limits. Decide how much you are going to allow yourself to do (how many cuts/burns/bruises, how deep/severe, how long you will allow yourself to engage in SI), keep within those boundaries, and clean up and bandage yourself later. If you can manage that much, then at least you will be exerting some control over your SI.
What is “fake pain” and why does it matter?
The concept of “fake pain” helps to explain why distress-tolerance skills are so crucial.
Observation of myself and interviews with others have convinced me that one of the reasons people self-injure is to deflect unknown, frightening pain into understandable, sort-of-controllable “pseudo” or “fake” pain. Calling this phenomenon “fake pain” is in no way intended to suggest that it doesn’t hurt; it hurts like hell. When memories or thoughts or beliefs or events are excessively painful, instead of facing them directly and feeling “genuine” pain, we sometimes deflect distress into pain that seems understandable and controllable, like that of self-injury. The real feelings associated with the event you’re avoiding get overridden by those of the situation you create to distract yourself. It still hurts like hell, but it’s a controllable familiar hell, whereas the real pain you’re avoiding seems scary and poised to take over your world like the monster who ate Detroit.
It’s easy to revert to “fake” pain. Trying to find the source of your distress can be scary as hell, because you often don’t know what you’re going to unleash. Fake pain, although very painful and traumatic, is something that you understand and can control and can handle. It’s familiar, not mysterious and scary like the real pain behind it. You might feel that if you ever exposed yourself to the real pain you’d lose control: “If I ever start crying, I’ll never stop” or “If I let myself get mad about that, I’ll never stop screaming.”
Instead, you unconsciously deflect the distress away from the memories or feelings that generated it and into self-injury. SI is seductive: you control it. You know the boundaries, even when you feel out of control. It makes sense and it makes the distress go away, at least for a while. It’s a clever mechanism — it takes what seems unbearable and transforms it into something you can control. The only problem is that when you deflect pain, you never face up directly to what it is that has caused this much tumult in your life. So long as you channel distress into fake pain, you never deal with the real pain and it never lessens in intensity. It keeps coming back and you have to keep cutting.
You have to deal with the unbearable if you ever want to make it lose its power over you. Every time you can meet the real pain head-on and feel it and tolerate the distress, it loses a little of its ability to wipe you out and eventually it becomes just a memory. The process is like building tolerance to a drug. Narcotics users take a little bit more of their drug every day as tolerance builds, until eventually they’re routinely taking amounts of drug that would kill an ordinary person. The poisonous events in your past work in a similar way. Exposure (with the help of a trained therapist) over time will build your tolerance to these events and enable you to lay them to rest. The key is learning to tolerate distress.
This concept focuses on learning to accept reality as it is. Accepting it doesn’t mean you like it or are willing to allow it to continue unchanged; it means realizing that the basic facts of the situation are even if they aren’t what you’d like them to be. Without this kind of radical acceptance, change isn’t possible.
Letting Go of Emotional Suffering
In this worksheet, you learn ways to observe and describe your emotion, separate yourself from it, and let go of it. One of Linehan’s basic principles is that emotion loves emotion, and this worksheet is designed to help you experience your emotions with amplifying them or get caught in a feedback loop.
Distraction is simply doing other things to keep yourself from self-harming. Most of the techniques mentioned above are distraction techniques; you bring something else in to change the feeling. Using ice, rubber bands, etc, is substituting other intense feelings for the self-injury. Other things Linehan suggest substituting include experiences that change your current feelings, tasks (like counting the colors you can see in your immediate environment) that don’t require much effort but do take a great deal of concentration, and volunteer work.
Improve the Moment
This worksheet focuses on ways to make the present moment more bearable. It differs from distraction in that it’s not just a diverting of the mind but a complete change of attitude in the moment.
Evaluating the Pros and Cons of Tolerating Distress
As the name implies, this worksheet leads you through an evaluation: what are the benefits of doing this self-harming thing? What are the benefits of not doing it? What are the bad things about doing it? About not doing it? Sometimes writing this down can help you make a decision not to harm.
This, like improving the moment and distracting, is a distress tolerance technique. It’s pretty straightforward: use things that are pleasing to your senses to soothe yourself. Some people find that active distraction works better for violent angry feelings and soothing is more effective for soft, sad ones.
Reducing Vulnerability to Negative Emotion
Prevention of states in which you are likely to self-harm is covered in this worksheet, which suggests ways of taking care of yourself in order to minimize the times when you feel the urge to hurt yourself. If you’re balancing eating, sleeping, and self-care, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed by emotion.
Being clear about what you want and about your priorities in an interaction are crucial to good communication, and this worksheet offers a series of questions and steps to follow to help you determine how to approach a difficult interpersonal interaction. It is truly amazing how much going through these steps can help.