I was gripped by a strange fascination when I first learned about self-destruction. As a junior high confirmation student, I studied Martin Luther’s life and learned that before his spiritual transformation, he whipped himself on the back as payment for his sins. In my brokenness this concept appealed to me. “If you punish yourself,” I thought subconsciously, “you don’t have to worry about retaliation or rejection.” Those poisonous seeds of self-destruction took root well before my high school depression began.
When I picked my face I felt a perverse sense of satisfaction. I longed for justice, but the way I sought it out was all wrong. I wish I had reached out for help instead. In those dark days, however, self-destruction was my weapon of choice against my frustrations and hurts.
Dr. John Townsend writes about the self-attacking coping mechanism in Hiding from Love:
In this style of internal hiding from separateness, the aggression that can’t be “owned” is redirected against the self. It becomes more acceptable to hate ourselves than to tell the truth about our rage at the sin of others against us…Sometimes called a masochistic defense, turning against the self makes us punish the safest target: ourselves. What the self-attacker needs is a safe, relational context in which he’ll be able to aim at the correct target, without fear of retaliation.
I was so practiced in stuffing negative feelings like anger and frustration that I didn’t recognize my anger turned inward during my teenage depression. Sometimes I wrote honestly and painfully in my journals about a love/hate relationship with my parents. More often, I was so desperate for love that I stuffed my true feelings to accept whatever love was given, even if it came with a heaping side of criticism or harshness. Sharing my true feelings and concerns resulted in conflict. I had learned to keep the real me hidden.
In the years since those hard times, this is how I’ve learned to cope with my temptation toward self-destruction.
Speaking truth to myself. When I’m tempted to blame and criticize myself after I’ve made a mistake, I replace “you’re stupid” with “you are forgiven.” I go to the Bible for affirmations. When the devil accuses, “Do you know who you are?” I say, “Yes, I am a daughter of the King of Heaven. I am precious, chosen, and loved.” Healthy self-talk cuts off self-destruction at the roots.
Becoming more assertive. As an adult I learned that people would continue to criticize me and negate my needs unless I stood up for the truth. It was very difficult to put into practice at first, but I’ve gotten much stronger because I speak up for myself now.
Grieving and accepting losses. Some old family dynamics aren’t going to change. I’ve confronted when I could, grieved the losses, and accepted things for what they are. I am not trying to change other people anymore, and I’m also trying hard not to contribute to the problems.
Seeking love from new sources. I used to be so desperate for family acceptance that I subverted my true self to take whatever was given. I don’t do that anymore. I have stopped seeking love from those unwilling or unable to give it the way I need, and I’ve turned to other friends and companions with my needs instead. I had to go through a lengthy grieving process to be at peace with this new method.
Recognizing warning signs. Occasionally I stand in front of the mirror, closely analyzing my face for flaws again. In those moments I stop and ask myself, “Are you doing this because you feel stressed, angry, or unloved?” When I can answer yes to any of those descriptions, I step away and handle my feelings in a healthier way, such as journaling or taking a walk. I work hard to stay out of self-destruct mode now.
Do you ever slip into self-destruct mode? If so, what techniques do you use to back out of the temptation?
Images and text copyright 2016 Sarah Geringer