Self Cutting > Unresolved Grief, Self Mutilation, Connection
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Grief produces energy.
Unresolved grief produces and sustains even more.
People go to great lengths to disperse the energy that mounts inside their bodies. Most of the actions they take are indirect and do not accomplish the goal of completing the grief that caused it. So it genereates even more energy.
Self-Mutilation is one of those indirect actions people take in an attempt to deal with the build-up of unresolved emotions.
The human body is neither designed nor constructed to contain that kind of energy. When there is a massive build-up of emotional energy the body seeks ways to relieve the pressure that mounts inside.
When a tea kettle reaches a boiling point, it lets out a whistle to notify us that it has reached that stage. We turn off the heat and remove the kettle from the stove.
The human body is very much like a tea kettle. When the human emotional condition cooks up emotions that have been sitting inside for hours, days, weeks, months or years, it will try to let off some steam to deal with the excess energy that has accumulated. If the body could talk, it would ask for the heat to be turned off and to be removed from the stove. Unfortunately, we receive so many incorrect lessons about dealing with that build-up of energy that we don't remember how to properly turn off our personal stoves. In turn, our ability to effectively relieve the pressure is shut down completely, causing major explosions.
There are several common indirect actions that people take to deal with that energy. The most obvious is FOOD. People eat to stuff down sad or painful feelings and the energy attached to them. This is a learned behavior. It starts early in life when a child has returned from pre-school with tears in her eyes. The well-meaning parent or guardian asks, "What happened?" The child says, "The other girls were mean to me." The adult, without thinking it through says, "Don't feel bad, here, have a cookie, you'll feel better." The parent has just set the child up for a life-long belief that suggests we "treat" our feelings with food.
Ten years later, when that same child has had her first romantic break-up, someone says to her, "Don't feel bad, try this, you'll feel better"? At that moment in time the young girl drinks a beer or smokes a joint in a logical attempt to push down her sad feelings. Logical? Yes, based on the teachings of her elders who taught her many years ago to consume a cookie in response to hurt feelings.
This all takes shape when you become aware that each year, in the United States alone, there are more than 300,000 obesity related deaths. Some are obviously pathologically based; the rest bear direct relationship to the mistreatment of the normal feelings connected to loss. Obesity is an epidemic. Child-hood and teenage obesity has become a life affecting and life threatening issue nationwide. Yet as a society we keep acting surprised when this happens over and over, and we keep trying to address the symptom and not the cause.
The next most obvious, but ineffective,"pressure" reliever is alcohol and/or drugs or the combination of the two. The fatal fallout of that misuse of substances is known to all via the annual drunk-driving statistics. The incorrect use of food and other substances has long term negative consequences for everyone involved. But those are just the tip of the iceberg.
We have coined a phrase to explain those things people do in an attempt to deal with the emotional energy created by a single loss or an accumulation of losses over time. We call them S.T.E.R.B.s, or Short Term Energy Relieving Behaviors. They are the actions people take as they try to dispel some of the energy that builds up inside of them when they are affected by sad or painful events. In the short term they seem to push aside or even dispel some of that pent-up energy. But at best it's only an illusion of well-being. Because the cause of the energy build-up has not been dealt with, the energy will come back. Then you must eat another whole chocolate cake or drink a quart of booze or run a marathon, or spend inordinate hours on the internet. The list of S.T.E.R.B.s goes on and on. One of the ones that sounds funny is "retail therapy" or shopping. Sex, anger, fantasy - reading, movies, TV can all be S.T.E.R.B.s when used in an attempt to push away the real feelings.
The S.T.E.R.B.s we mentioned above are the standard and most obvious ones. That's not to say that food of itself is bad, because it's not. After all, you have to eat to stay alive. And reasonable amounts of alcohol do not qualify as abuse. And reading a novel can be great fun. Those behaviors or actions become problematic because they create an illusion of dealing with emotions and the energy they create.
Now we come to the purpose of this article. Let's talk about self-cutting, and other parallel actions.
Several years ago we had a Grief Recovery Program in a psych hospital in Southern California. Patients were admitted by their psychiatrists or doctors. Several of the patients in our unit were "cutters." They would come to our Grief Recovery groups in the mornings, with fresh cuts on their arms and legs. Although this was a psych facility, it was not a locked ward. Turns out our patients had access to the crafts room, and were sneaking nails out of the area and taking them back to their rooms.
Having prior understanding of the essential reason underlying the actions of "cutters," we did not panic. Of course, we asked the hospital to make nails and other kinds of sharp objects less easy to obtain. But what we really focused on was educating those folks in our groups that "cutting" was another S.T.E.R.B. Most people, sometimes even mental health professionals, get very agitated about "cutting." It is often diagnosed and pathologized, which of itself can have negative consequences for the "cutter." While diagnostic language may be helpful for professionals, it is often misused by those who are diagnosed, and becomes a permanent condition and an immovable object in their minds.
NOTE: We are very aware of the range and depth of the pathologies that are often associated with self-mutilation. We do not mean to diminish any of them. In fact, in this article we are not seeking to address any major presenting pathological conditions. We are neither therapists nor psychiatrists and we do not wish to present opinions in areas in which we are not qualified. With that disclaimer in mind, we would like to suggest that our experience has been with people who do not fall under major pathological headings.
In our hospital program we spent considerable time addressing the idea of "cutting" as a Short Term Energy Relieving Behavior. Doing so removed much of the stigma and pathological context under which the "cutters" often live. More importantly, we were simultaneously helping those people address the underlying, unresolved grief issues that had brought them into our unit in the first place. As we helped them become emotionally complete in their relationships with people living and dead, the behavior naturally diminished and in most cases stopped altogether.
Helping the people in our program deal with the unresolved grief of their pasts was just one piece of the puzzle. Many behaviors are developed in childhood, in reaction to circumstance and situations to which young minds - and hearts - find themselves exposed. Some of those behviors become life-long habits, while some disappear over time. The key aspect that we needed to help people understand was the "habituated" nature of some of their actions. "Cutting" was clearly one of them.
In a crisis we go back to old habits or old behaviors: Eating large quantites of food or misusing alcohol or drugs are common "habits" usually associated with incorrect attempts to deal with emotional energy. Not everyone who does that is a compulsive overeater, an alcoholic or a drug addict. But most all who do that develop habits. Grief or loss events are crises; therefore when painful losses occur people will usually go back to the habits and STERBs with which they are most familiar.
Self-mutilation, in various forms, and to varying degrees of damage, is another of the ways that people attempt to deal incorrectly with the emotional energy caused by sad or painful events. Whether it is "cutting" or other self-inflicted wounding, it too can become a habit. While not as common as the misuse of various substances, it is probably much more prevalent than statistics might demonstrate. It is logical to conclude that a great deal of that behavior is hidden and never makes it into any fomal research study.
As with other STERBs, it doesn't necessarily become pathological, but it can easily be memorized as a habit that will rear its ugly head again in response to an emotional crisis. As the recovering alcholic must be ever-alert to the possiblity of relapse, so must the reformed cutter be ever-vigilant to the build-up of emotional energy that can lead to a repeat of that behavior.
The best antidote and preventative we know of to help people who have self-harming habits of any kind is to take the actions of Grief Recovery. Effectively completing relationships with all the major people who have affected their lives removes much of the stimulus that leads to the build-up of energy that requires the use of STERBs. Unresolved grief and incomplete emotional relationships act as tinder to a forest fire and keep rekindling the energy simmering inside our personal tea kettles. Proper completion of that energy, rather than the short term dispersal of self-defeating actions, is the key to breaking those habits.
With that said, we encourage anyone who has struggled with harmful habits to take Grief Recovery actions to complete what remains unfinished from all of their majo relationships. At the same time, we encourage people to stay connected to their therapists, support groups, or spritual counselors or any others they trust enough to tell the truth. If there are pathological issues, they should be dealt with by licensed professionals. In the meantime, doing the Grief Recovery work can be a tremendous adjunct to all the other hard work. Sometimes it becomes the key that opens many other helfpul doors.
About the Author
Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook and When Children Grieve [both from HarperCollins]. Information about Certification Training, Personal Workshops and many other articles can be accessed at www.grief.net