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Alternatives to self-harm

PostPosted: Wed Nov 11, 2009 10:53 pm
by JigsawAnalogy
I thought I would start a thread on this subject, and see if people had things to contribute. I suspect I/my system are not alone with struggling with different forms of self-harm. And when the urge to hurt ourselves is strong, it can be difficult to remember that there are alternatives. It can also be difficult to realize that a lot of different feeling states can lead to a desire to self-injure, and (for my system, at least) this means that various options will work some, but not all of the time.

If you are feeling suicidal, I highly recommend Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws, by Kate Bornstein. It reached me more effectively than most of the other things people suggest when I/we are feeling suicidal, and it might be helpful to you as well.

I will add actual suggestions of alternatives to self-harm as replies to this post, and please feel free to do the same.

Re: Alternatives to self-harm: Anger

PostPosted: Wed Nov 11, 2009 11:14 pm
by JigsawAnalogy
One of the emotions that is most difficult for parts of my system to handle is anger, and that's an emotion that often pushes a button that encourages whichever part is feeling it to want to hurt themself.

What helps my system cope best with anger is finding ways to get the anger outside of our body. This is a challenge, because we weren't really allowed to express anger while growing up, and so we mostly learned to internalize it, and turn it on ourselves. It's scary, and a real challenge, to turn it outwards.

Warning: please be conscious of other people's safety when doing this. It's vital to express your feelings, but it's equally important to not be abusive to other people. If you feel that you can't control your anger, I'd suggest either venting in private, or choosing someone who is trained in coping with other people's feelings (and giving them a warning of what is coming). An example of a person trained in coping with others' feelings is a therapist.

Here are some suggestions for coping with anger:

Throwing things. If possible, choose things that won't break, and throw them somewhere where nothing will get broken. You can throw your shoes down the hall. You can throw books against a wall. You can throw socks, stuffed animals, a ball, or really, anything against a wall. Throw the blankets off your bed. Throw a temper tantrum. Throw rocks into water. Throw dirt clods against a wall.

Breaking things. If possible, choose things that aren't important to yourselves or outside people. Ideally, don't break something belonging to someone else. That said, breaking or destroying things can be immensely cathartic. Rip up old phone books. Get toys or dishes from the dollar store and smash them. Break glass bottles (in a safe location, and make sure to clean up afterwards). Stomp carboard boxes until they're flat. Rip up sheets, clothing, pictures, newspapers. Destroy something that reminds you of whatever is making you angry. Break crayons. Destroy old electronics. Smash eggs or pumpkins or tomatoes.

Get physical. Go for a walk or a run (ideally, do this in a place you know to be safe, and preferably not too late at night). If you have a Wii, the Wii boxing and similar games can be pretty physical, and give you the chance to punch things without hurting anyone. Alternatively, punch pillows, or put a mattress against the wall and punch that. Or get a punching bag, if you have space for one. Ride a bike until you're exhausted. Do 500 jumping jacks. Lay down on the floor and kick and scream and bang your fists and flail around.

Get loud. Scream. Shout. Put on loud music and sing along to it. Watch a news program skewed towards a political party you don't agree with and shout at the newscasters. Bang doors, bang a drum, bang pots and pans.

Make a mess. Dump out the trash on the floor. Empty all of the drawers and shelves in a room and just leave the mess. Get (washable) paint and paint all over the walls. Or paint big angry splooshes all over old newspapers. Get big crayons (the kind they sell for preschoolers) and draw big, dark, scrawly lines. Scribble.

Vent. Write about it in your journal. Write a letter to the person you're angry at (although I generally advise reading it over before you send it, or not sending it at all). Call a friend and tell them what you're angry about, and why. Sometimes, it can help to vent about something that isn't the real reason you're angry--vent about bad drivers, or politics, or people who bug you on the street. For my system, it's easier to let out anger about things that are less personal, but some of the anger that feels more dangerous slips out as well.

Please feel free to add your suggestions as well!

Re: Alternatives to self-harm: Externalizing emotional pain

PostPosted: Wed Nov 11, 2009 11:33 pm
by JigsawAnalogy
I/we have also found that feeling intense emotional pain can make us want to self-harm. It's as though physical pain is easier to cope with, and self-injury seems as though it would take that pain outside of our mind, and put it in our body. I think some parts also hope that if outside people see the injuries, they will take the emotional pain more seriously (unfortunately, this doesn't happen as often as it should, and mostly, people are upset and disturbed by the self-harm, and focus on stopping the behavior, rather than finding the source of the pain).

For me, the alternatives to self-harm when I'm feeling this way tend to be more symbolic, such as the following:

Get a red permanent marker, and draw on yourself where you want to be cutting.

Get a tattoo of something that symbolizes your pain (think carefully about this, as tattoos are more permanent).

Draw, paint, sculpt, or write about the pain. Let whichever part or parts are feeling pain have a chance to express themselves in a way that works for them. Don't worry about how the picture/story/poem comes out. The point is to express the pain, not to have a professional-quality piece of art. Often, it just gets thrown away or put into a box when we're done. The point of this is the process, not the product.

If you have dolls, action figures, or something similar, younger (or older) parts might want to act out the situation that is causing emotional pain, and other parts might participate in providing the responses they think the original parts would like to hear.

For my system, it's been both very challenging and very helpful to actually tell someone about why I/we are feeling intense emotional pain. The other person can't solve it, but often having someone listen, and validate the feelings, helps to make them easier to bear. My/our experience has been that people are more comfortable with a verbal or visual expression of pain than they are with self-injury, and I/we are more likely to get the help we need when we try that route.

Listen to music that either expresses how you feel, or music that you just happen to like. I've been surprised over and over again by how listening to music can make me feel better, even when I don't expect it to.

If you have an outside person who is emotionally safe for this, it's okay to just say something like "I just need a hug right now" or "I just need to cry, and be comforted."

In my system, even older parts say that the emotional pain sometimes comes from what they call a "baby place." It's pain from the time before words, when we didn't have a way of expressing ourselves, or comforting ourselves. So sometimes "baby" like solutions are most comforting: curl up with a stuffed animal, suck your thumb, and regress. (This is best done in private, or with someone who understands that it's ok.)

Be aware, when you're asking people for support, that it is not within ANYONE'S power to lift that pain from you. There is nothing they can do that will take the pain away, or make the hurt not have happened. What they can do is listen, and validate, and let you know they care. Sometimes, support people feel overwhelmed, and might back off in the face of intense pain. If someone cares about you, they probably wish they could lift that pain away, and make you feel better, and when they can't, they back off. This doesn't mean you're not important, or that they don't care. It means they're human.

Re: Alternatives to self-harm: Needing to feel *something*

PostPosted: Thu Nov 12, 2009 12:08 am
by JigsawAnalogy
Sometimes, we feel absolutely numb, and just need to feel *something*. Many of us had experiences where pain was the only sensation we reliably felt, and it can be a little disorienting not to get that sensation once we are somewhere safe.

For us, exercise is one of the best ways to get a physical sensation, and it's more socially acceptable to exercise than to cut. Biking, jogging, aerobics.... It also gives the same endorphin rush that many forms of self-harm give, but without the danger of infection.

Another option is to just be aware of physical sensations.

Focus on each of your senses, and find something to be aware of.

What do you smell? Find something with a strong smell (coffee, spices, perfume, ink) and smell it. Breathe it in. Focus on it.

What do you hear? Sit quietly and listen to the sounds around you. Or make some noise yourself. Go somewhere very loud or very quiet. Listen to music, or nature sounds, or white noise.

What can you taste? Focus on the taste in your mouth. What did you last eat? What is your most or least favorite flavor? Or eat something with a strong flavor: eat a hot pepper (careful: this can verge on self-harm), or chocolate, or a lemon, or something sweet. Take small bites, and focus intensely on the physical sensation of eating it. Where do you taste it on your tongue? How does it feel as it moves around in your mouth, as you chew and swallow it?

What can you touch? Rub a blanket, hold a stuffed animal, touch things with different textures. Just feel it. Rub your hands together until they are warm. Put them against a wall or a window and feel the difference in temperature. Rub your head (this often winds up being soothing in itself for me/us). Squish play dough between your hands. Make (or buy) bread dough and stretch and pound and twist it.

What can you feel? What is touching you? Are you warm or cold? Take a deep breath and feel your chest rise and fall. Stretch your body and feel your muscles moving. Flex each of your joints, from your toes to your neck. Tense and release all of your muscles, from your feet to your face.

What can you see? Close your eyes and try to remember what was in front of you. Play a memory game (the thing where you put cards face down and then search for the pairs). Look around you and count all of the different shades of one particular color.

Re: Alternatives to self-harm: the cycle of abuse

PostPosted: Thu Nov 12, 2009 12:08 am
by JigsawAnalogy
I/we have also found that growing up within the cycle of abuse means that if things in our life are going well, we find ourselves walking on eggshells, waiting for the eruption of violence that used to come so regularly. We want to do something, *anything* to relieve that tension. And there are ways that self-harm can help to relieve that sensation of walking on eggshells.

This sensation also leads us into more interpersonal trouble than most of the other things that lead towards self harm. When parts are feeling that walking on eggshells feeling, regardless of whether something in the present actually caused it, they are prone to lashing out at the people closest to us. They will pick fights, perhaps hoping to provoke an angry or violent outburst. They will do things at work, home, or school that used to reliably provoke the kind of angry reaction they're used to. They will glare at strangers on the street, hoping for a fight.

These are not good options. It hurts the stability of your adult life, and isn't going to actually relieve the feelings for very long. It's understandable that it happens, but in our system, we work hard to find alternatives.

My/our approach to this is two-pronged. So far, we haven't found anything that gives immediate relief for that feeling. Over the long term, we are working on helping parts to separate the past from the present, and to realize that the safety we're experiencing now is different from the "honeymoon period" we experienced within the cycle of abuse (or, in our family growing up, the "walking on eggshells" period that was all that separated incidents of violence).

So when self-harm seems to be coming from that kind of feeling, we've found that distraction is the best bet. Just focusing on something else, for as long as possible, is useful.

So we play online games (solitaire, puzzle games, the Sims... choose a game you enjoy, and play it as much as you need to).

We read books, or listen to audio books.

We listen to music.

We go to movies, or watch TV.

We focus on someone outside ourselves--volunteering, talking to a friend, doing something distracting. When we were in college, we would go around handing candy out to random people, because it provided a shocked response (people don't expect you to randomly give them candy), but didn't cause trouble.

I am slightly nervous about suggesting this last option, but it has been so helpful for me/us that I'm going to put it out there:

With our particular partner (who is amazingly supportive), we've also gotten to a point where we can test out things that used to get us into trouble: refusing to do housework, saying "no" when she asks for something (especially physical affection), acting out in ways that are not personally directed at her, but which would have caused extreme punishments when we were growing up. If you have a partner who knows about your parts, being able to act out in safe ways, and have a healthy, age-appropriate response from someone goes a long way to demonstrating that the cycle of abuse is no longer in effect.

This means that especially younger parts have been able to throw temper tantrums, or say "bad words" or similar things, and have a caring adult rein in their behavior in a way that was respectful, caring, and safe. My system has learned that the most important rule is "It's okay to be mad, it's not okay to be mean." And our partner has been willing to repeat that rule as often as necessary.

I don't recommend this unless you have very good reasons to believe that your partner understands (at least some of) what is going on for you; you also need enough experience of who they are as people to know that they will respond in a safe way--if they are going to erupt in anger, that will reinforce those feelings from the cycle of abuse. But if they can respond calmly and caringly, it really can help to heal those old wounds.