Understanding Self-Aggression

Posted by on Feb 1, 2009

Insight from a 14 year-old girl:
I was recently talking to a 14 year-old girl who cuts herself.  “It’s pain I can control,” she told me.  “I prepare for the pain, feel the cut and see the blood and then I don’t have to feel the other pain.”  I was struck by how much insight this girl had into why she wanted to hurt herself.  I was also struck by how we all do some version of this – create pain to avoid another pain.

Self-aggression is a way out:
Self-aggression, we think, is a way out of feeling our vulnerability.  When we feel the rawness of life, grief, and/or the fear of inadequacy, the pain can be so great that we just want out of it.  A “way out” many of us have found is to be hard on ourselves, to punish ourselves, or to beat ourselves up.  This takes many forms including:

*  Endless self-criticism, judgment, and doubt
* Being angry at ourselves
* Trying to be perfect
* Basing one’s self worth on the opinions of others
* Worrying about the future
* Obsessing about the past
*Convincing ourselves that we are not worthy of our aspirations or deciding ahead of time that we will fail anyway, so why even try?
*Finding unhealthy ways to dissociate such as over-eating, watching too much TV, drinking too much alcohol, and other self-destructive, addictive behaviors

The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Is self-aggression helping me?”

Self-aggression and control
:
When we are self-aggressive, we finally have an emotional state that we are controlling.  “If I would just work harder, be smarter, lose weight, make more money, be how my parents want me to be,  etc… I wouldn’t have to feel this way.”  So we focus on making ourselves a self improvement project and we crack the whip.  “Get it together!” “Just stop being this way!” We tell ourselves.  And then we wonder why we feel even worse.

Putting down the Whip:

There are three steps to ending self-aggression:
1. Recognize the futility of self-aggression and decide that you want to stop it as it is no longer serving you.
2. Put down the whip.
3. When you are aware that you are being self-aggressive, pause and notice your direct experience.  Breathe.  Feel the sensations in your body.  See if you can bring kindness and compassion to what you are experiencing.  Notice your critical thoughts, but don’t believe them.  Breathe.

If I stop being self-aggressive, I’ll never be who I want to be, or achieve my goals.

I would say the opposite is actually true.  How are you going to be successful or authentic if you are constantly judging, criticizing, and doubting yourself?  Ending self-aggression is about changing your relationship with yourself, and your relationship with yourself is the ground from which everything else grows.

What if I turn ending self-aggression into self-aggression?

This can very easily happen.  Noticing self-aggression becomes the new reason to be hard on yourself.  “There you go again, being self-aggressive!”  When you notice this happening, the steps are the same.  Pause and see if you can relate to your experience directly and feel your vulnerability.  How scary is it to feel that you can’t get it right?

How this relates to the big picture:

If we want to live in a peaceful, non-violent world, we have to begin with ourselves.  How can we expect the world to be at peace when we are all constantly being violent towards ourselves?  Cheri Huber, author of There Is Nothing Wrong With You, explains it like this: “You cannot be non-violent if there is any part of yourself that you are in opposition to.  You are not truly serving if there is any part of yourself to which you will not extend compassion.  Your love will always be conditional as long as you are excluding any part of yourself from it.”  Just like the 14 year-old girl, we need to look at our version of cutting ourselves, and instead of escaping our pain by creating more, turn toward our experience with gentleness, kindness, and compassion.  Only then will we truly be able to extend gentleness, kindness, and compassion to others.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this article! It really helps me to understand self aggression – that this is not just cutting yourself, taking pils and drugs and so on.
    Thanks!

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