By Millie Caffull
When we talk about ‘self-harm’, a particular idea or image might come into your head. It’s likely you’re thinking about physical harm, someone causing physical pain to themselves.
But it’s widely recognised that abuse can come in many forms. If someone is being abused, it might be physically, psychologically, verbally, sexually, financially. We understand that abuse is causing harm… the definition of abuse is "to treat with cruelty or violence", but we know that can be done in many ways.
We know that when more than one person is involved abuse isn’t just physical, so why don’t we consider that when it comes to self-harm? Can self-harm be psychological too? If we constantly put ourselves down, if we tell ourselves that we are not good enough, if we make it clear to ourselves that we don’t like or approve of who we are, is that ok? Is that different to someone else doing it?
I think we have a tendency (maybe it’s a British thing?) to think that we are just being honest with ourselves. We’re being realistic, adjusting our expectations or admitting to ourselves what others might be afraid to say.
In actual fact, we’re being the opposite of realistic because we are forming an opinion of ourselves based on a comparison to perfection, whatever that might look like in our eyes. We aren’t accepting of imperfections, we can’t see the beauty in our quirks or our differences and we don’t recognise our strengths. We hold up a magnifying glass to the things no one else would ever see, and identify them as defining features that we should be ashamed of or want to change.
Someone who psychologically abuses picks out a weakness in their victim and exploits it. When we put ourselves down, we’re using that same tactic. It’s so self-destructive, and yet we pass it off as a necessary admission of truth.
Abuse isn’t always visible to outsiders or even to the victim, who often doesn’t realise straight away that they are being abused. But repeated psychological abuse has visible consequences. When these negative, self-deprecating thoughts are repeated, over and over, they can start to affect our mood, influence our decisions and behaviour. It might be denying ourselves a certain food, bullying ourselves into exercise, not speaking up at work or putting ourselves forward for a job, it might be in the clothes we hide behind or in building up an anxiety that prevents us from socialising.
We would likely recognise these changes in someone else, but would we recognise them in ourselves? We say “don’t beat yourself up”, but we need to practice that ourselves. We wouldn’t allow someone else to speak to us in such a derogatory way, so why do we speak to ourselves in that way? There is almost this unwritten rule that we can be, or even need to be, so much harder on ourselves than others. It doesn’t have to be that way.
That doesn’t mean that we have to stand in front of a mirror every morning and list ten things we love about ourselves. That doesn’t mean that we have to tell everyone else about how fabulous we are. But the first step we can take is to recognise when that voice does start to tell us negative things about ourselves. Hear it, and correct it. Don’t tolerate it, and don’t excuse it.
And once we start to drive away the negative thoughts we leave a space for more positive ones. Thoughts that are compassionate and kind. That build us up and recognise our strengths. It’s not that we are blind or ignorant of any weaknesses we might have, but we don’t use them as a reason to wear ourselves down. We might see them as ornate features that are scars from our life experiences, we might see them as challenges that motivate us to improve, we might just see them as unimportant quirks that have no bearing on our lives.
Over the last few years, I've experienced points of extreme self-hatred and have come out the other side with more love and respect for myself than I've ever had before. I’ve learned that being kind to myself is fundamental to my happiness. None of us deserve to be abused. We deserve to be treated with kindness, to be forgiven for mistakes, to be accepted for who we are with all of our flaws, to be motivated to be a better people, and to be loved. And we need to remember to treat ourselves how we deserve to be treated.