Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.
People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?
Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.
Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.
If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.
Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.
How did this class help you? Here is the feedback from four parents who took the Spring 2015 class:
“To try and react better..To try and anticipate my daughter’s behavior triggers..try to find out what is causing the extremes and deal those triggers… By accepting emotions and where they are coming from; not to deny my emotions but they are there for a reason. To validate how I feel as well as my daughter. To be calmer. “- Parent 1
“To better understand my emotions, and that they have a purpose…To explore that purpose. Better able to identify escalation in my daughter. I’ve learned to buy time, to put some time in between responding to my daughter and others. What was most helpful was the overall impact of the course which has left me better equipped and more curious about DBT.” -Parent 2
“It made me more willing to bit my tongue, take a deep breath, and not focus on ‘fixing things’. Acceptance was important, both dealing with my own emotions and allowing for acceptance of my child’s emotions. Using mindfulness techniques to tone down my level of arousal was also important. Understanding that emotions might be valid but ineffective in some circumstances. I thought the (video content shown in class) outlined some very pragmatic examples and techniques.” -Parent 3
“To be more present with my emotion. To validate how I feel as well as my daughter. To be calmer, to think things through. Being able to listen to others’ experiences. Each class was built on each other. Have learned many skills to be more effective with my daughter.” -Parent 4
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Here are some steps to figuring out your mood- and what to do if, indeed, you want to change it.
Our moods- or our feelings- can be extremely important in helping us understand ourselves, organize our behavior, know what matters, and have better relationships. One of the first steps to figuring out feelings is to be able to describe, understand, and put words on experience. Think beyond just being in a “bad mood”: Try figuring out what, exactly, you are feeling. Instead of thinking about your mood as bad or good, try approaching this task with curiosity. Are you down, flat, depressed, lethargic, or disinterested? Are you irritable, angry, frustrated or impatient? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? Remember that feelings give us information about ourselves, our situations, and the people around us.
Next, consider what is valid, relevant, and sensible about what you are feeling. Some reasons that others tell us to stop being in a “bad mood” is because they want us to behave a certain way. Consider this: If the person telling you to stop being in a “bad mood” got what they wanted, what specific action would that entail? If you stopped being in a “bad mood”, would you stop avoiding conflict, go to work, keep a relationship, participate fully in an activity, or attend a social event or function? We may know and understand our mood, and have a good reason to feel the way we feel, but our mood gets in the way of rising to the occasion and meeting an obligation.
Expressing negative feelings frequently or pervasively can hurt relationships; on the other hand never being to share our innermost pain can prevent us from having more meaningful and connected relationships. In other words, ranting, venting, or complaining can join people in their beef against the universe, while expressing vulnerability can increase caring and intimacy. Consider how acting or expressing how you feel works or doesn’t work for you. Does it bring you closer to the people you care about, or does it tend to push them away?
Next, consider if you want to change how you feel. Is someone else trying to get you to change how you feel? If so, trying to change how you feel can be much less effective.
One way to change how you feel is to act in ways that are incompatible with how you feel. In some situations, acting on how we feel can enable us to feel congruent and genuine with what is going on for us on a more personal level. However, sometimes moods are so pervasive that they interfere with our lives. If your “mood” is interfering with your ability to organize action, meet obligations, make deeper connections with others, keep relationships, or engage in meaningful activity, it might be time to experiment with alternative behaviors to shift gears, engage your brain differently, or do something you wouldn’t typically do.
Here are some suggestions: Express appreciations to other people, talk about what you value in the relationships you have, avoid “complaining”, practice not talking about anything negative, shift gears by doing an activity that demands your attention, shift gears by doing a something physical (washing dishes, raking leaves, taking care of a child), become invested in someone else’s problem or dilemma, try generating compassionate reasons for why people behave the way they do, soften your body and facial expression, wish other people well, do something that challenges you, do an activity you like or enjoy, or do an activity for someone else that they like or enjoy. Doing these things even if you don’t feel like it– may help you change your mood all by yourself.
Newer behavior therapies are looking at how people can change their behavior despite how they feel. The difficulty with focusing on behavior change is that most clinicians think that by focusing on behavior, private experiences such as thoughts and emotions are ignored.
The truth is, most people exhibit certain behaviors when they are feeling a certain way. For example, an anxious person might become overly chatty, focus on “safe” topics, avoid talking about anything personal, or present as very “intellectual”. Someone who is afraid of being disliked or judged might acquiesce easily, become a people pleaser, and become excessively compliant. Someone who is afraid of being excluded might become critical and judgmental in order to avoid the vulnerability of feeling more ostracized. Someone who has a hard time with intimate relationships might inhibit self-disclosure, refrain from sharing personal information, or lie to avoid the risk of discovery. Someone who has a lot of self-hatred might be dismissive of compliments, avoid positive feedback, or avoid rewarding activities.
The benefit of looking at how you behave when you feel a certain way increases opportunities for therapeutic interventions. All of the examples listed in the above paragraphs are behaviors that matter in personal relationships- and will likely show up in group settings. Being able to identify what you do when you feel a certain way is one of the steps to understanding what alternatives are available. Knowing where and how you get stuck is the first step to experimenting with how you can get yourself unstuck.
Here are some examples:
If you are anxious and tend to be chatty or intellectual, try experimenting with the following: Tolerate pregnant pauses, awkward silences, and situations in which there doesn’t seem to be anything to say.
If you have a tendency to be a people pleaser, try asserting yourself in minimally threatening situations. Ask for one thing and then change your mind at the deli counter or a restaurant. Experiment with introducing small things that may be somewhat different from the norms of your social circle.
If you tend to have prickly relationships and often feel threatened, try softening your facial expression, making gentle eye contact, focusing on what you have in common with others, and refraining from criticism.
If you struggling with intimacy, connection, feeling visible, or being “known”; or you have extreme social anxiety, you may want to consider small ways that you make yourself a bit more visible or known. If being the center of attention is too much, find ways in which you can start to voice your thoughts, feelings, and opinions in less riskier situations.
If you have a lot of self-hatred, practice being receptive to the positive things. Make eye contact when receiving positive feedback, allow yourself to feel the warm fuzzies, and treat yourself with kindness on purpose by doing things that are personally rewarding and enjoyable.
Part of identifying how services can be helpful is being able to observe and describe one’s own behaviors. This includes being sensitive to the impact it has on other people the consequence of how it makes you feel- as well as the ways in which current behavior simply doesn’t work. Being able to figure out what specific alternative behaviors you can do when you have the urge to do what you’ve always done is one of the keys in successful treatment. Increasing meaningful relationships and creating a fulfilling life takes work, feedback, sharing, and challenges. Changing one’s behavior often puts people in touch with emotional discomfort. What is the benefit? The benefit is that if one acts and behaves in a way that signifies being “better”, one will be less controlled by emotions and thoughts- especially thoughts and emotions that don’t “go away”! Taking risks is scary, but the cost of not making these changes is sometimes worse.
People tell me all the time that they don’t deserve to feel the way they feel. When they start to feel sad/distressed/upset, they immediately think of all the positive things they have in their lives, convince themselves that they have no reason be upset, and spend a considerable amount of time in their heads trying to argue away the existence of their emotions. The problem with this kind of response is that it doesn’t make emotions disappear in the long run.
If you are one of these people who has “no reason” to feel the way you feel, here are a couple of things you can try:
1) Make a list of all the stressors going on in your life. Brainstorm every little thing, even if it seems small. Little things (like an annoying smell) can actually create a lot more stress than actually realize. Doing this exercise can help you actually identify the extent of your stressors. Some people find it quite validating.
2) Identify if there have been recent changes, losses, or shifts in relationships or life situations that have been hard on you. Sometimes these things seem subtle; such as no longer being able to have lunch with a friend who is suddenly preoccupied with something else in his/her life. This person may have a good reason to stop meeting with you, but the interactions and what they meant to you are suddenly no longer available. This naturally may elicit sadness.
3) Consider if your environment tends to diminish, dismiss, or ignore your requests to be heard, get your point across, or communicate what you feel. Sometimes people end up in pretty harsh environments and then blame themselves when others ignore or dismiss them.
4) Even if you can’t figure out why, try focusing instead on the what. What you feel is experienced in your body. A tightness in the chest, a pit at the bottom or your stomach, or a sense of restlessness and agitation are all feelings. When you focus on the what, try to make space for the experience of your feelings to simply exist, without you trying to change them. Your feelings are probably trying to tell you something! This is the opposite of what you do when you can’t figure out why (i.e., ruminate endlessly, suppress feelings, and try to talk yourself out of experiencing what is felt). Give yourself the opportunity to simply allow feelings to be-without a wordy, logistical, or rational explanation.
The problem with figuring out if anger is “good” or “bad”; “healthy” or “unhealthy” doesn’t allow any opportunity to figure out what anger does, how it works, and why it makes sense.
Think of your living room couch. Is it a “good” couch or a “bad” couch? Wouldn’t it sort of depend on a bunch of different things- such as comfort, style, how old the couch is, how many people can fit on the couch, or if the couch actually suits you? Usually if a couch has a use, serves a purpose, or does what it is supposed to it is considered valuable. While it is possible that you are sick of your living room couch- perhaps you think it is time to get a new one- your couch may be necessary to hang on to for now. On the flip side, you may be very happy with your living room couch. This could make it more likeable and increase your tendency to say, “It is a good couch.”
Emotions- like anger- are like couches. Instead of thinking about anger as being “good” or “bad”, it is more important to consider the following:
How is anger serving a purpose, fulfilling a function, or doing something useful? Anger can function to communicate, get someone to back off or change behavior, or change a situation for the better. Think of it like a red flag, a signal, or a message.
Is the way in which the expression of anger is effective? In other words, is the way you communicate your anger working for you? What a person can make use of their anger by being aware of it (experiencing, tolerating, and understanding what it does for them) it increases the opportunity for effective expression (ie, another person heard, understood, and responded accordingly). On the other side, ranting or attacking often hurts relationships and doesn’t always send a clear message about expectations or desired change.
What are the relationship consequences for how the anger is being expressed? Relationships at some point might undergo rifts, misunderstandings, and irritation. The ability for people to tolerate these things in relationships sometimes help people grow, initiate important discussions, and bring about change or intimacy. On the other hand, anger that is overly intense can damage relationships, hurt other people, or add insult to injury.
First of all, I’m going to say that focusing on the why this behavior occurs is probably not the most effective approach to addressing adolescent self-harm. I’ll give you some reasons why teenagers self-harm in a minute, but the one fallacy that people often have is that if they could explain why behavior occurs, then they would actually have the tools to fix or change it. More specifically, teenagers who may not understand the behavior themselves can often be put in an awkward situation in which they are forced to explain the unexplainable. If they don’t understand why the behavior is occurring in the first place, they may end up giving inaccurate reasons simply to appease their environment.
Self-harm behaviors likely have something to do with emotional pain. Possibilities include ways to control feelings, ways to control oneself or one’s behavior, ways to increase intensity of feeling (ie, the need to feel “real” or the need to feel “something”), or ways to decrease intensity of feeling (“If I didn’t cut I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the situation”). Understanding how emotions work and what they do for people may is critical in understanding the role of self-harm behavior. For instance, feelings are functional in that they give useful information about what matters to us, communicate to ourselves and others, and help us become organized and prepare for action. Without feelings we just wouldn’t care.
In adolescence, self-harm behaviors may play a role in identity, communication, and intimacy. Self-harm may be kept very private or it may be made public. It may be an attempt at controlling one’s environment or letting someone else know that the person doing the self-harm cannot be controlled. The function of the behaviors may communicate to oneself (I know I matter, I know what I have to say is important, I can’t stand by and let nothing happen, I am not pleased by the situation, This is my way of making a statement), or to others (Back off, This is too much, I can control your reactions, I know you will be upset and freak out, There is nothing you can do about this, You can’t claim to know me, You think you know everything and you don’t).
Treatments for self-injury are not as simple as publicizing behavior (ie, making sure that others know about it), invading privacy by doing body checks, or just stopping doing it. If there was no benefit to doing it, no one would do it! That’s just simply how it works. Knowing the benefit can help someone to organize an effective solution. Teenagers who can obtain help in identifying, accurately labeling, understanding, and communicating their feelings effectively will have more options for what they can do when the urges to self harm show up. Increasing options, understanding the short and long term consequences of this behavior, and providing alternatives for how to tolerate intense, painful, and negative emotions is certainly one way to start.
It’s important to remember that teenagers also have their own feelings about this behavior. Some are opposed to changing it, some don’t want anyone to know about it, some want everyone to know about it, and some feel really hopeless that they can’t stop doing it. Most have some degree of mixed feelings. Assuming and communicating that a teenager simply doesn’t want to change is probably not going to help solve the situation. While it might be a likely, blaming a teenager for doing it usually only serves to communicate a parent’s frustration.
Similarly so, parents have their own feelings about it and may feel disgusted, hopeless, overwhelmed, inadequate, or guilty. How parents communicate and address painful emotion will also impact the situation; and thinking through the effectiveness and intensity of one’s own responses may be part of the work involved in addressing teen behavior.
I think it is important to consider that the problem of self-harm behavior has solutions. Sometimes providers, teachers, parents, and community react with an abject horror that stirs the pot, gets everyone all worked up, and in some cases emphasizes the solution (self-harm) and not the problem itself. Emotional problem solving is really just that- emotional problem solving. If a person can figure out how to problem solve (ie, address, tolerate, understand, deal with, validate, survive) painful emotions, then their way of solving problems (ie, self-harm) may decrease. Finding effective solutions means having an adequate way to assess and address these behaviors with a skilled professional who understands the role that these behaviors serve.