Understanding Self-Harm by Dr Peter Mack
All the passages below are taken from Dr Peter Mack book, “You are not Alone.”
SELF-HARM is another way of' coping with one's feelings by expressing deep distress and emotional pain through a physical injury. The most common form of self-harm is self-cutting and the central focus of this chapter is on cutting the surface of the skin. On a broader front, self-harm includes other intentional acts of self-injury such as self-poisoning, burning, head-banging, punching walls and binge-eating. Implicit in the act of self-harm is that the body is going to be deliberately and often habitually harmed rather than killed. So, why would anyone turn on to his body in this manner to inflict painful injury on oneself?
Clearly, the injuring process represents considerable distress on the part of those adolescents who commit the act and many of them have a high tendency towards suicidal attempts as they transit into young adulthood. These attacks on the body, as the reader may soon realise, are a metaphoric representation of earlier psychic wounds in one's life. Self-harm is an unconscious way of putting a signature on one's body so as to mark his past relationships and previous experiences.
The Silent Language
People harm themselves for various reasons and in different ways, and occasionally their acts of self-harm result in death. Counterintuitive as it may seem, creating an injury in oneself can and does make the individual feel better. The act helps the individual to know that he is alive, real and in control of his life.
Not all the harm that people cause to themselves is deliberate. Some intentional self-harm that could result in death does not have death as its starting aim. Others self-harm not because they are coping with depression but because they are searching for something deeper and more exciting in lives for them to focus their energy. For instance, one famous Oscar-winning actress cuts herself because she feels "caged" or "closed in" and has been looking for new thrills.'
In helping the child to overcome his habit of self-harm, it may be more important to focus our attention on the child's intention than the consequence of his act - on why the child does it rather than the outcome of the injury. This gives the caregiver a better idea of the root of his behavioural problem. Admittedly, probing the child's intention behind the act is often fraught with difficulties because the self-cutting individual seldom makes his intention public. The reason for self-harm is private to himself and knowledge of his intention is seldom accessible. In the absence of certainty of the person's intention, we may attempt to guess but risk being led into believing something that is different from his true intention.
It is generally agreed that self-harm is a distinct issue from suicide. When people injure themselves, they are trying to cope with their problems and pain instead of trying to end their lives. Yet, the same self-harming act may represent different actions with different intentions in different people. For example, a death from a drug overdose may represent a person's act of communicating to the world that his life is so miserable that he prefers to be dead. However, it may also be a way of punishing himself, due to feelings of guilt or shame, or it may be an act of putting the blame on his parents for inflicting some real or imagined hurt on him.
From these examples we can see that self-harm is potentially a powerful and silent language. It is a language that uses the body instead of words and feelings, and is also an attempt to deal with the chaos in the mind. The individual may be communicating his state of mind to others by inscribing a Story of Self on his skin with a knife, but at the same time, expressing the hope that someone will understand and care for him. It is an attempt to connect with others with a cry for help rather than an expression of suicidal desperation. The main purpose is to use the physical pain to wipe out the mental and emotional pain, at least for a short period of time. During this time, he hopes to establish a connection with his inner self, who in turn, can still relate to another person in a profound manner. Unfortunately, healthcare workers who care for victims of self-harm often do not have the skills required to translate the language. Instead, they are usually overwhelmed with the concern about whether the victim intended to die or whether he is still at risk of dying.
The Meaning Behind the Injury
At a deeper psychological level, the cutting of the skin carries a profound meaning. Injuring oneself blurs the metaphorical distinction between the body and the self. In turning one's anger and aggression inwards, the body is feeling both connected as well as dislocated from one's sense of self. The underlying motive is to attack the nightmarish thoughts within oneself and keep them at bay. These thoughts are usually those resulting from uncomfortable sensations and frightening feelings that have originated from one's earlier experiences.
The person is trapped in a conflict between an overwhelming and tyrannical inner force and his ambivalence about separating himself from it. The intra-psychic wound is therefore a metaphoric representation of the dilemma of a conflict between the fear of enslavement and the desire for freedom. In a way, cutting oneself symbolises the active creation of a boundary between the two difficult psychic states. In the meantime, it restores some sense of order within the chaos while allowing the sight of bleeding and experience of pain to initiate an instant relief.
When a person breaches the integrity of his skin, there is a conscious intrusion from the external world into the inner sanctuary of the individual through the interface of the skin. The harmed person is left injured, defaced and filled with pain. It is essentially an enactment of an attack coming from an outsider. Penetrating the skin symbolises a divided self and a replication of the earlier relationship between self and other. After breaching the skin, the person who has been the invader can now reverse his role and be the nurse to attend to the injured body. Nursing the self-inflicted wound can then be seen as a re-enactment of early infantile experience of being cared for by the mother. So self-cutting can be perceived as a person's way of requesting the healthy, nurturing part of oneself to attend to the injured part of the self with care and understanding.
Time and again, those people who deliberately cut themselves have said that they do so because when feelings of emotional distress and hopelessness are overwhelming, inflicting pain is a quick solution. To their friends, teachers and parents however, the act seems to be a problem instead of a solution.
RACHEL ON UNDERSTANDING SELF-HARM
Rachel, who has a long history of depression and self-harming since childhood, associates the self-harming habit with parental disharmony at home and growing up in a loveless family. She once described her frustration when trying to make people understand the motivation behind self-harm and the complications involved in seeking help. When I first met her, I noticed not only that her wrists and forearms were filled with scars but there were many tattoos on her body. At that time, she was also struggling with an eating disorder. Her recall of her early self-cutting experiences as a way to express emotional pain throws light on the dynamics of her shadow self.
Obviously my self-harm habit started when I was really, really young. When my mum made me do things that I didn't like, I started to self-harm. At home our floor was lined with parquet and in between the wooden planks there would be grooves. I would sit down and rub my leg against a groove repeatedly until it bled. When there was pain I would stop feeling upset. It is just that when I do things like that, people don't normally see it as self-harm unless I take a knife and cut myself. There is something that I wanted to make a counsellor understand - it's that depression doesn't just come in the form of self-cutting.
The walls at home were uneven and they had sharp ridges. Whenever I got upset, I would just rub my hand against them until there was a friction burn. But nobody noticed. Suddenly one day 1 got a "barcode" on my wrist and people noticed it. So when my mum sat me down and asked, "Why are you cutting yourself?" my first reaction was, "It has been going on for a very long time and you just didn't notice it. It is not until the day I take a knife and cut my wrist then you all will notice it!"
Everybody just worries about the act of self-harm, which is very pointless. They see it as a suicidal tendency. That is why I told my counsellor that if a client comes to her today with a cut on the forearm, he does not want to die. He is trying to find ways to help himself. If people really have suicidal tendencies they will try to hang themselves. Those are the suicidal ones. The cuts are not suicidal. They really want help, but some of them are tired of asking for help because no one is listening. They will say, "So, what is the point of my repeating the story over and over again?"
It is usually very difficult to tell people about your inner demons. It makes you feel vulnerable and it is really very scary. So, you can imagine how you will feel if you go and seek help, tell them your problems and you find they are not even listening! Sometimes, because of the story the client gives, the therapist may make the client feel even more at fault, like it is wrong for the client to feel the way he has been feeling. So, seeking help becomes counterproductive.
I started cutting myself since Primary 5 and attempted my first suicide in Primary 6. So my scars have existed for a long time and are very deep. People usually use a blade but I choose to use a pen. The first time I cut myself, I had angry tendencies which I could not control. I wanted to destroy that anger but I didn't want to hurt anybody else. So I did it on myself so that I can stop when I want to. It is like telling myself, "Okay, I realise that there is pain now and I’ll stop."
It feels very good! After that incident, I got addicted to the pain. I can safely tell you nine out of ten people who self-harm do it for the pain and they like it. That is why most of them have tattoos as well because they will keep trying to find higher levels of pain. That is also why I have so many tattoos myself. I even went to tattoo my eyeliners. Usually my pain threshold is very high. Even today I am still getting new tattoos and still finding out where the most painful place in the body is. So, when people say that a particular place is very painful for placing a tattoo, that will be where my next tattoo would be!
Nature of the Habit
A self-harming habit is usually built up over time when a child uses it repeatedly as a means of managing distress and coping with stressful feelings. He likes to cut his wrist and forearm with a knife often because the physical pain they experience from the cutting is preferable to the emotional pain that leads up to the cutting. However, it is difficult for his parents and caregivers to understand this phenomenon. They generally find the behaviour shocking and would react with anger, disgust and condemnation.
I have learned from many of my patients' experiences that the very act of cutting the skin relieves the emotional pain instantly. One patient described to me that she felt "alive" while she was cutting, and for those five minutes as she bleeds away, she felt "real" and "deserving" of her existence on earth. However, she also commented that the feeling ended as soon as the physical pain stopped.
From a psychological perspective, cutting oneself serves as a way of owning and controlling the body. By turning inwards and attacking one's own body, the individual finds comfort in himself and becomes more able to handle his emotional turmoil. In the light of this understanding, emotional support in the form of esteem-enhancing regard from parents and teachers is a valuable way of improving the child's ability to cope with his stress.
Younger children are often at a disadvantage when it comes to coping with stress because at their level of maturity, they have difficulty recognising their own emotional problems and needs. At the same time they may be unable to communicate their problems and needs to those who may be able to help. Without the insight and words to describe their inner tension, they are simply incapable of asking for help. Without the mastery of language to describe one's feelings, an easy way out is to express one's despair through behaviour instead of words. The child would find it simpler to injure himself with a knife with each attack of anxiety and despair. At times, he may see himself as having to decide between injuring himself and confiding in his parents. Hence, good communication with family members and a feeling of being understood by them are paramount in reducing depression and the development of self-harm.
Some people who self-harm have faulty beliefs and ways of thinking to justify their behaviour. For instance, they may believe that self-harm behaviour is entirely acceptable because what they are doing is not any worse than their parents' alcoholism. Some even believe that they deserve to be punished for who they are and their level of academic performance. These illogical beliefs could have developed from dysfunctional family backgrounds or constructed in the course of the adolescent's difficult life experiences.
Sometimes the pain from the cut helps the person to focus on the wound rather than on his other worries. He sees the distraction as an effective way of releasing tension and helping himself to cope with problems to get on with life. For some others, the inflicted pain serves the role of a self-punishment and eases the person's bad feelings towards himself.
JENNY ON SELF-HARM AND BINGE EATING AS PUNISHMENT
Jenny has just turned 30 and, despite her attractive appearance, has been deeply depressed with her appearance and her single status. She has been cutting herself for many years and describes how she views self-harm as a form of punishment for not meeting her self-expectations. She is also an example of how self-injury can be associated with an eating disorder. She has a low self-esteem and when her boyfriend could not accept her self-cutting habit she switched to binge-eating instead. In fact, there are several other forms of eating disorders that could also be conceived as self-harm. This includes severe restriction of diet and consumption of substances that affect weight.
I had been cutting my wrist and forearm since secondary school. I had always wanted to score full marks in secondary school for my tests and exams. If I didn't I would be very pissed off with myself and during class I would break down and cry. My teachers were upset with me whenever I behaved in this manner. Then I started cutting myself whenever I could not score the full marks that I desired. I did it in order to punish myself each time I scored less than 96/100 marks.
These expectations of exam scores were set by me. I had always wanted to be in the top two in class. So, if I were neither first nor second, I will be very miserable. I would cut myself not only as a punishment but also as a reminder to myself that if I don't want to feel the pain, I must be more disciplined in my studies. I cannot recall how this behaviour first came about.
My mum is shameful and worried that I am not married yet. My aunt also keeps telling me not to set my standards too high. I am with this current boyfriend right now, but I don't have fond feelings for him. Everyone that I know is attached, getting married or already married, except me.
I have since switched from self-cutting to binge-eating. It is because of my current boyfriend. When we are together, I really don't like a lot of the things we do. So I cut myself. He saw and then told me that next time if he sees any marks on my hand again he would also cut himself. It was a threat.
The binge-eating is also done to release myself from whatever pressure and stress I have.
I feel the pressure when boys say I am slim. I know how guys think. When they criticise a girl for being skinny they are really saying she does not have a nice body and don't have big boobs. They always keep making fun of the girl. So whenever guys say I am skinny I get very pissed off because I know what they are hinting at.
Feeling Alive Again
We have seen how self-cutting serves as a way of owning and controlling the body and a way to handle emotional upset. When a person feels upset by others and overwhelmed by his own complicated and uncontrollable needs, one way to cope is to turn inwards and attack his own body. Through the action of converting emotional pain into physical pain the distinction between the physical body and the emotional self is blurred.
Many adolescents who cut themselves focus on the cutting as a way of dealing with an immediate, difficult feeling. The trigger can be from a row within the family, to a threat of abandonment from a close friend. When the emotional pressure is at an unbearable level, self-harm becomes a convenient safety valve. Bleeding from the inflicted wound immediately releases the person from the numbness and lifelessness within and makes him feel alive again.
The events that trigger self-harm often have their origin in early pubertal experience and their roots in old wounds and psychological patterns. As a person reacts to abusive experiences, the trauma is absorbed into his subconscious mind and takes on a life of its own. The mental disturbance emerges during adolescence and is characterised by an attitude such that an attack on the body is deemed as the only way to express a distress that cannot be verbalised.
Many people who inflict injury on themselves are characterised by a tragic and chaotic life dominated by loss which makes them depressed. After all, cutting oneself can be a powerful way of eliciting a caring response from other people. Treating one's own flesh with scorn and contempt provides the individual with a means to bypass the normal processes of interpersonal communication and vulnerability that accompany the negotiation of needs with others. After all, turning aggression inwards towards oneself is a safer option than turning it outwards toward another person.
Carol and Her Self-Cutting Habit
Carol recalls how a traumatic experience in an earlier part of her life triggered the start of her habit of self-cutting. She has since been using it as a way to release trapped tension in her life.
My brother was struggling to adapt to working life. Being a pampered and sheltered child, with his parents and sister helping him all the time, he had to deal with bullying at work and the complexities of adulthood. He kept to himself, talked to himself and wrote vulgarities all over walls in public places. His handwriting is so unique that we knew with one look that it was him and his doing.
One particular evening, he came home late. He came home and mum asked him whether he had vandalised the void deck with writings again. In response, he shouted at my mum. I came out of my room to scold him for his rudeness. He lost his mind, put his hands around my neck while shouting at me and said that he wanted me dead.
My heart was broken when I heard that my only sibling wanted me to die. All the negative vibes in me seemed to suddenly spew out like a volcanic eruption. The only thing I heard was a voice in my head, telling me to go and get a knife. I walked to my room, fetched my penknife, walked back to him and said in his face, "Since you want me to die, I'll die in front of you."
I slashed myself. Blood gushed out from the 60 mm long cut on my wrist. His room was splattered with blood and mum was horrified and in tears. My brother was not affected, still in rage and shouting away. Dad came out of his room, yelled at him to keep quiet and took me to the hospital.
My heart died that night. The wound was deep. It was only millimetres from my main tendon, but I never felt pain from the wound. The pain came from the heart. I never forgave my brother and I never forgave myself. I hurt my parents' hearts.
I could have struck my brother with the penknife, but I didn't, simply because he is my brother.
The Stress Beneath the Scar
In some cases of adolescent breakdown, the body is used as a channel for all his feelings and fantasies. Adolescents who have difficulties forming relationships sometimes feel as if they are trapped in a state of developmental deadlock. They feel they can neither move forward into adulthood, nor regress back into dependence.
Attacking the body is one way of handling uncertainty and the anxiety of being stuck. One feeling by the individual who cuts himself is that the painful feelings of the past could be killed off while another happier part of himself is now allowed to come alive. The self-harm can be a symbolic action for demonstrating a person's autonomy and giving him control over his life. He may feel that he lacks control and wants to at least have control over when and how he inflicts pain.
It may seem like a paradox that a self-destructive act is actually mirroring one's desire and will to carry on with life. Cutting oneself is a distraction strategy. It releases the pent up emotions and stills them. With the physical pain inflicted, the individual feels that something different is being created from the emotional deadness that has been haunting him. Thereafter he feels alive again. One patient relates to me:
The feeling is indescribable. When I made the cut, I felt a sense of relief as the pain in my heart was diverted to the wound on my forearm. However, I was also afraid of the physical pain and that is why I didn't cut too deep.
We do not know much about to whom or where the individual who engages in self-harm will go for help, but studies seem to show that friends are the main source of support. There is a concern that young people who seek help from their peers may not go on to seek more formal help, particularly if their peers are also suicidal.
Obstacles to Seeking Help
It remains a fact that the act of self-harm is neither culturally acceptable nor socially permissible today. The reality is that the moment self-harm is disclosed, the individual is likely brought to face a number of care professionals who may regard him as mentally disturbed or attention-seeking. This becomes a major obstacle to depressed adolescents who are seeking help.
Many healthcare providers are themselves terrified by acts of self-injury. They may not adequately understand the psychology behind self-harm, and as a result, their capacity to remain thoughtful and compassionate to these people simply breaks down when faced with someone who persistently hurts himself. Their empathy with their patient's distress leads to their confidence in their ability to help others to fall apart. They fail to see the self-injury as the patient's way to communicate personal trauma and instead view the person as being manipulative. This aggravates the patient's hurt further when he realises that he is being regarded as attention-seeking when in fact he is crying for help.
RACHEL ON SEEKING HELP FOR SELF-HARM
Rachel, who has had a long experience of self-harm since early childhood, once lamented on how and why it is difficult for people like her to get help for depression. During the interview, she expresses her opinion of how people should be thinking differently.
I agree that self-cutting is a paradox in a sense. It is like you are harming yourself and yet you are saving yourself. But many people do not understand that.
I think you need to have a very good understanding of people at their purest. Like everyone else, even my mentor, no matter how open minded she is, whenever I talk to her about certain things, she already has this set of ideology from an adult's point of view. So she will view it and interpret it differently. It is either she over-exaggerates the situation or she undermines it. A lot of people, not just her, can't get the problem at the purest.
They don't realise we are a troubled group of teens. Self-harm is one of the things they should be least worried about. It's just a symptom. In itself it's not something they have to address.
For my mentor, she considers self-harming as very serious and I tell her, "No, self-harm comes very easily. People may not need to cut themselves to self-harm." I keep telling her that self-harm is not something she should be worried about. Actually,
it is when the person doesn't talk about it that she should be worried, because in that situation she wouldn't know what the person is going to do next. When people are self-harming, they are actually trying to do something to counter their inner demons. It is when they don't harm and they don't say anything that the demons are consuming them. So I told my mentor, "When I cut, I am not trying to kill myself. You may think I don't know. If I cut my forearm longitudinally I won't die. I must cut transversely across my blood vessels instead, if I am to kill myself. We know, but what are we trying to do is to save, and not kill ourselves."
Supporting Those on the Road to Destruction
As caregivers, we simply need to understand that the self-harming behaviour is the individual's way of managing very difficult internal states. The person feels that he has been transgressed against in the past and the original violation is now being reenacted in him. As adults, we need to avoid judging or shaming the young person. Passing a remark such as "Do you know what you are putting your parents through?" is unhelpful because it only makes him feel guilty about his behaviour. After all, it is his inability to handle his emotions that is leading him to hurt himself. If he is being shamed or judged for what he is doing, it is likely that he will react by hurting himself even further.
The principle underlying effective help is one of supportive self-care. We start by taking the individual's self-harming habit seriously. Since the person's behaviour is likely to be his way of coping with painful experiences, it makes sense to ask him about what his feelings are and explore what his underlying issues might be. He probably understands that self-harm is a short-term solution to his pain. Helping him to decide how he wants things to be different, in order to get a longer term solution to how he feels, is the way to go. We need to assist him to set realistic goals that he can work towards. Of course this will take time.
We must not be judgmental. It can be hard for a young person to talk to us when he is worried about how we will react to his self-harm. If he is prepared to talk and share his issues, it is important to respect whatever he is telling us, whether or not we are able to accept what he is doing. Empathic listening is therefore the key to providing help. We need to remind ourselves that self-harm is not the problem because it is only a reaction to other issues in his life. Those issues could be anything from stress of exams, bullying at school, child abuse, financial worries or just low self-esteem. It is in the area of how he may tackle his issues more effectively that he needs emotional support.
All too often, parents and caregivers are interested, not in supporting the child, but in wanting him to terminate self-harming. While the child may understand the logic behind what they convey, the advice is unlikely to help. The self-harming individual usually wants someone to let him talk about his emotions and not hear their evaluation of him. Often, upon discovery of the self-harming behaviour, many parents would react by hiding knives and razors. Such a reaction is usually counterproductive. By hiding these items, all that the parents are communicating to the adolescent is that they do not trust him. This is patronising and may further erode the parent-child relationship.
Another common but unwise reaction of parents is to declare their intention to take him to the doctor. This evokes the fear of being locked up in a mental asylum. This threat would lead the individual to become more anxious because he would feel less control of his life and would further exacerbate the self-harm. It is better that the parents trust that the child is in control of his self-harm and what he needs is a rebuilding of his self-worth and confidence. For this, he needs -the moral support of adults while learning to grapple with his own emotions and take control of his own life.
Given this understanding, it is recommended that as parents, we detach ourselves from the confusion and panic that arises at the moment of discovery of the child's self-harming act. We should maintain our calmness and focus our attention on treating the wound with first-aid measures. We should help the adolescent to understand that the relief obtainable from self-harm is temporary and short-lasting. Otherwise, it is analogous to applying a Band-Aid on a gaping wound that needs to be stitched.
Psychotherapists use various strategies to help a person manage his self-harming habit. One such strategy would be the identification of those occasions when the person feels like harming himself but has not done so. A question like: "When you managed to resist the urge to cut yourself the last time, what did you do instead?" is often valuable. It helps the person with positive self-reflection to gain insight into his own psychic makeup. One measure that he can use immediately to help in his self-restraint may be the taking of a deep breath or the focusing of his attention on something else to distract himself. Whatever the technique may be, he can over time hopefully develop a self-strategy to soothe himself without resorting to harm.
A second approach is that of harm-minimisation. This involves helping the person to find ways to gradually reduce the frequency of harming. The critical part of this strategy is that the person will need to find a different way of getting his emotions out of his system. Understandably this will be a long and tough journey. Hence, it is not appropriate to impose an ultimatum. A harm-minimisation strategy only manages and reduces the harm. We need to appreciate that the person's self-harm behaviour will only stop when he is mentally ready to do so.
A third approach is to help the person to find substitutes for the cutting. For instance he can use a red marker pen to mark out the spot where he might usually cut, or he may rub ice across the identified spot. Alternatively, he can also put rubber bands on his wrists and forearms and snap them to generate a gentle pain sensation instead of cutting the skin.
A fourth approach would be to help the individual figure out his cognitive distortions and to actively elicit them. For instance, he may use self-harm as a way of regulating himself from overwhelming feelings of anger, anxiety and emptiness that cannot be psychologically managed otherwise. At other times, he may use it as a means of punishment when he perceives himself as having failed to achieve an unsatisfactory performance. Still, at other times, the cutting may be used as a means to build a more solid sense of self. Upon recognising how he legitimises his self-harming behaviour, as parents and teachers we can guide him to challenge the way he justifies his act. This would be a step forward in restructuring the way he thinks. For example we may want to challenge the reason as to why he thinks he deserves to be punished or why he feels he lacks an identity. Only through challenging his rationale would we have a chance at letting him re-examine his own conclusions. It makes sense for us to acknowledge that it is his way of coping with his internal struggle for anger and controlling his emotional state. If we can convince him that self-cutting is too costly and too temporary a way to defuse his anger, this approach may help.
Obstacles to Healing
FINDING one's way out of anxiety and depression is admittedly tough. Personal change requires self-motivation, especially when the adolescent wants to get himself out of his own "hell" to move on with life. Yet, there is a positive side to anxiety in our lives that is often overlooked. Anyone who aspires to attain optimal performance must learn how to take control of his anxiety and use it for his own benefit, instead of being controlled by it. When an individual concentrates and directs his energy on the future possibility that he aspires to realise, he will find that the set goal is attracted to him with an even stronger force.
However, not everyone in need of getting himself unstuck is prepared to take the step forward. Some would complain that they are already exhausted and too tired to ask for help. During a recent motivational talk that I was delivering as part of a workshop, a young lady in the front row interrupted me with a startling statement - that carrying out my recommended suggestions was something "easier said than done". I was startled, but I realised she was not alone. In previous situations I have also encountered others who have led themselves to believe that only a miracle could save them from their distressed state.
In this concluding chapter therefore, I am focusing on the nature and hidden meaning of excuses, with particular reference to two "nonsensical" ones.
The Easier-Said-Than-Done Excuse
Many a time, when a profound suggestion is meted out to someone seeking help for a difficult situation, the person would come up with a justification for not acting on the advice given. We commonly hear the bewildering statement "It's easier said than done" being uttered almost like a knee jerk response. For the person who is providing help, this seems astounding. Why should anyone use an excuse to kill his own dream of success?
It is human nature that anything that requires effort is likely to meet with resistance. The reality is that anything that is worth achieving also requires effort. Would it not be great if there is some kind of a magic formula, a shortcut or a way to get what
you want in life and be the person you want to be with no added effort? The answer is a resounding "No!" After all, which thing in this world is not easier said than done?
The value of any achievement is based directly on the effort needed to achieve it. The reward is in the journey and not so much the destination. The person who believes that he can get rid of anxiety with minimal effort will, in all likelihood, slide back into the same anxiety state when he faces his next life challenge.
"Easier said than done" is a pathetic excuse because the underlying motive is a fear of failure. Making the excuse shifts the causal attribution for possible failure from a source that is central to the person's self to sources that are not so central. It is a defence mechanism that protects the person's self-esteem and self-worth. It is also a communication tactic used by an individual who anticipates failure, but at the same time, wants to deny personal responsibility for either failing to act or accepting a suboptimal outcome.
The issue underlying the easier-said-than-done excuse resides at the level of controllability of success. The person perceives that if he carries out the task but falls short of success, he will be responsible for the failure, but wishes to convey the message that he is not. This is done by shifting the causality of failure from internal to external factors. The excuse alters his responsibility for possible negative outcomes and is given in an effort to allow better control of his own emotional state. In this way, he is more able to maintain his self-image and avoid any further negative impact on his anxious state.
The individual's desire for making the excuse is triggered by two conflicting beliefs: that he is a good person and yet he is being responsible for an unsuccessful outcome. He tries to increase awareness of the first belief while trying to reduce awareness of the second. It is a form of self-deception and he reframes his performance such that the negative personal outcome would seem less negative by putting emphasis on the external factors of task difficulty.
My reminder to all adolescents is that life is about being and growing. It is not about getting. Overcoming anxiety and depression is a journey of individuation in which they differentiate and become distinct individuals in society as they grow. Something as important as getting out of depression requires more effort than many other things in life. In many ways, the young person should be thankful for the challenge because the latter provides an opportunity to search for meaning in his life. If he really wants to find meaning in his life, it does not matter if it will take a lot of effort. Confidence and not excuse is what is needed. Martin Luther King once said that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Challenge will teach him new skills and motivate him to get the best performance from himself.
If an adolescent does not know how to get out of depression, then he must make the effort to learn now. If he thinks it will take too long, then all the more reason he needs to get started right away. A bad strategy is to tell oneself that he will get started when he gets back on his feet. The way to get back on to his feet is to take positive action right away. Another bad excuse is saying that he does not know where to start. All he needs is to envision his ultimate goal of getting out of depression and start working out something that he can do in the direction of his goal right away.
Getting out of depression is bringing a person's life to a higher level. The easier-said-than-done statement contributes nothing to the person's growth or self-worth, apart from proclaiming a self-evident truth that applies to everything in life and softens the impact of inspiring messages. The idea that only certain things are easier said than done, while other things are easier to do, is a total illusion. We unfairly depreciate the value of doing something when we arbitrarily compare it with the ease of talking.
The I'll-Try Way of Failing
Very often when the reluctant individual makes no headway with his excuses, he would follow up with the statement: "I'll try." Interestingly, this shadowy phrase gives the impression that the person is promising to make an effort but actually contains a built-in excuse.
Trying is not the same as doing. People who say that they will try are giving themselves an implicit permission to fail. This is because trying contains a built-in expectation of failure. So, when we are trying, we really do not have to do anything. The word "try" is employed as an expression of an urge in doing something but not necessarily leading to the act of doing. By the same token, people script themselves into failing when they say they are trying. Regardless of the outcome of their attempt, they can always claim that they have "tried" and the end result is that of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There is actually a difference between committing oneself to pursuing a task and using "try" as a way to declare that he has no confidence in succeeding in the task. To declare that one is trying is to give himself an easy way out, that he has a certain chance of failing and therefore not to be blamed if and when he fails. People who truly achieve their desired goals never say that they will try, but instead say, "I'll do it." They are determined to do it because they are willing to give their time and energy to something that they believe in. The key issue again lies with personal responsibility.
There are many other cop-out expressions that convey a similar message, such as "I'll work at it", "I'll take a shot" or "I'll give it a chance." However, these expressions make sense only after the act and are meaningful only after the outcome of the act is known. Saying them before the act is hiding one's lack of commitment.
Responsibility and Commitment
Responsibility is a major concern in most evaluative judgments of human action. One of the most laudable comments we make about a person is that he is responsible. This means that he accepts his duties and commitments, carries them out and will accept the consequences of his actions. To declare a person as being irresponsible is a serious condemnation. It means that he is unreliable, not trustworthy and cannot be counted on when difficulties arise. One way to manage the risk of being labeled as irresponsible is to modify the level of personal commitment involved.
Trying is the weakest level of commitment that a person can make. It opens up a whole world of excuses to remove himself from accountability and responsibility. The moment a person says "I'll try", he immediately builds an escape route that allows him to remove all guilt from failing to meet expectations. This is counterproductive. If a person is working to get himself out of anxiety and depression, he must commit a hundred percent of his effort to the outcome he wants by telling himself that failure is not an option. Instead of merely trying, he must get himself going and move fast. The faster he moves, the better he gets and the more he will like himself. The more he likes himself, the higher is his self-esteem and the greater are his discipline and chances of success. [151-179]
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