Self esteem, self worth, self concept- these have all been tricky and elastic concepts for me, particularly as a younger person. I remember being told things like ‘you’ve got the ability but you just don’t try’ and ‘you need to believe in yourself’ these phrases wont be unfamiliar to lots of people.
But the assumption was there that there existed some mystical innate force within me that I could access and draw strength and positive affirmations from. Not true.
I felt worthless. I never had a strong sense of self, identity was a complicated beast and was marred even further by some of the behaviours that I adopted and adapted as coping strategies to protect against difficult feelings. I felt very much the ‘defective baby’ that Verrier describes in The Primal Wound.
I didn’t grow up in an environment of positive praise and reward, I grew up in a home filled with criticism and projections of parental self hatred and dissatisfaction. Again, not unusual. But what did feel quite specific to being me was knowing that I was unloved. Unloved by the one person biologically predetermined to love me. The first cut is the deepest and all that…
Where does self esteem come from? I think self esteem and worth are cultivated by accurate reflections of experience, by kindness, via patience and love. Self esteem comes from the building up of positive experiences and relationships that model and therefore mould into the self concept (or way we see ourselves)
surviving early separation from a primary caregiver requires some heavy duty coping strategies, popular wisdom has it that adopted people either develop passive pleasing tendencies in order to defend against any future or further rejection or find ways to keep everyone at arms length- avoidance or complicatedly- oscillate between these two conflicting positions.
I shut down. Avoiding. Much of the time I didn’t even feel. At a young age I discovered my mums medicine cabinet and found that her extensive stash of opiate based analgesics and tranquillisers could provide a wonderful, warm escape. Perhaps providing some of those all important opioids that weren’t being activated naturally. I felt ashamed of what I was doing but also, it gave me a sense of escape and release, I could take something that would help me to feel something, even if that something was a kind of oblivion, it was better than nothing.
By my teenage years, I had discovered self harm, and this really worked for me, I’m not advocating or suggesting it, you won’t ever find it in the NICE guidelines but it worked for me for a time. My sense of low self esteem, at times bordering on all out self hatred combined with the relief of having expression for the pain that I could not give name to- could only really be expressed through physically hurting myself.
I never had the words to accurately describe the eviscerated emptiness that I felt growing up- I never had the words to describe the inescapable loneliness that haunted me, I never had the words to say how angry, let down and abandoned I felt- so self harm became a way of articulating this- I could look at my arms, my legs, my torso and know that I had given some meaning to the feelings, I had started a dialogue with myself about the fact that I wasn’t ok.
It took a long time to find the right help and support to enable me to develop new ways of coping that didn’t hurt- most interventions that the adult world offered were around trying to get me to stop- but trying to get me to stop without asking what was wrong, or what was going on underneath- I don’t think things are so different now- although there is much better understanding and education around self harm, it is still widely misunderstood and creates fear and worry in professionals and caregivers alike.
Self harm is a symptom, a clue to the distress that someone is feeling, it doesn’t necessarily signal a desire for death, but more likely a will to survive. Self harm is a way, quite an extreme way- granted, of trying to communicate something.
By my early 20’s I had been lucky enough to have worked with a couple of really good counsellors, people who had taken the time to listen and understand and not tell me stop, so that over time, the need to do it lessened, I found new tools and ways to articulate what I was feeling and I learnt that it was ok to have needs. I discovered ways to ask for what I felt I needed and I learned about my impact on the world around me- I started writing without feeling self conscious, I painted badly and I danced like no one was watching- and each of these things helped me to feel more in myself, more grounded and accepting.
With the help and support of the people around me, I learnt what it meant to be me,
made things up, and discarded those aspects that didn’t fit anymore and accepted that things are not rigid. I did things that I can take pride in and learn from the mistakes that I keep on making.
I found new ways to cope.
Below are some suggestions of sites that can be really helpful if self harm is something that impacts you or anyone you know.
selfinjurysupport.org.uk was formerly known as the Bristol Crisis Service for Women and has lots of great resources such as an interactive diary to record self care/ self harm, a telephone helpline and links to support.
youngminds.org.uk is a portal for all things to do with young people and mental health and includes lots of links specifically for people who self harm, including Kooth telephone counselling service.
thecalmzone.net this site covers many areas and includes contributions on self harm by people who have lived with it.
selfharm.co.uk was set up by people with lived experience of self harm and contains a wealth of information on where to access support.