On a hot summer day, Margaret marched into my office sporting a black, long-sleeve sweatshirt with an image of a giant middle finger on it. I liked her immediately. I’ve learned that the bolder the armor, the more tender the heart. Twenty-two going on forty, Margaret worked two jobs to make ends meet. She wanted to talk about her boyfriend, John, who would disappear to binge on drugs and women, only to return with gifts and apologies.*
I learned during that first session that pointing out the unhealthy nature of her relationship would get us nowhere. Margaret could analyze all of her issues better than I could. She knew John wasn’t good for her, but she wouldn’t leave him. She was drawn to him like a moth to flame.
When Margaret was five, her father joined a gang. No one had talked much to Margaret about her dad, where he would go, or why he would show up at random and then disappear for years. No wonder John’s behavior lured her: there was a young part inside of Margaret’s soul that longed for John to redeem her experience with her father by sticking around.
A week later, Margaret arrived for our appointment wearing a tank top revealing the scars on her arms. I knew an invitation when I saw one.
“I’m glad you came back,” I said. “I enjoyed meeting you last week.”
Margaret glanced at her arms.
“So, you’ve been cutting?” I ventured.
“Yes,” she replied, loosening her armor. “John disappeared. No texts. No calls, nothing. I felt like I was going to lose my mind. I had to get the pain to stop.”
“Can you tell me if this sounds right?,” I asked, “It sounds like some part of you cuts as a way to protect you from all that pain in your heart by making you feel physical pain instead?”
Margaret nodded. “I know it’s bad. But I can’t stop.”
As I helped Margaret get curious about this dynamic, her cutting protector began to take notice and softened a bit. She began to trust that there might be another way to deal with painful emotions – most of which were buried deep inside.
Over our next several sessions, in the safety of a trusted relationship, Margaret began to share more with me about her story: “I was around seven and getting ready to put my little brother to bed. We were supposed to be staying with my dad that weekend, but he hadn’t come home. He finally showed up drunk, yelled at me for not having put my brother to bed, threw us both in the car, and drove across the neighbor’s lawn to take us to my grandma’s. I didn’t see him again for three months.”
“What did you do then, Margaret? Was there anyone there to help you understand?”
“No,” she said. “No one knew. I told myself I had to be strong. My brother needed me.”
“So, no one told that little girl that it wasn’t her fault? No one helped her see that what was happening was wrong?”
Margaret shrugged. “I was strong,” she replied. “The cutting started a few years later. No one has ever understood it. Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but the cutting actually helped me survive all these years.”
From the moment Margaret connected with her cutting part with compassion from her Spirit-led self, it began to soften. In the safety of a trusted relationship with her counselor, she gained access to the exiled pain she hadn’t known how to handle at such a young age. And as she began to heal the pain all the way down at the root, her impulse to cut decreased dramatically. She was able to take all that energy she’d put into cutting and use it to help her build a different kind of future and healthy relationships.
You may not cut yourself like Margaret, but we all numb our pain at times – instead of addressing our problems directly.
Self-destructive behaviors are extreme forms of numbing that can lead to physical harm and dangerous addictions, such as drug and alcohol abuse, cutting, and sexual addictions. Typically, these behaviors are a means of self-protecting from a deep wound or pain that feels too hard to face. They’re a way of numbing painful feelings.
If your loved one is engaging in self-destructive numbing behaviors, consider the following:
- Don’t shy away from a courageous conversation. It can be extremely hard for many of us to wade into a conversation that feels uncomfortable. But your willingness to bravely name what you see is loving and can build bridges of connection.
- Show compassion; don’t shame. The shame of self-destructing behaviors can be overwhelming and isolating. When you talk to your loved one, do so with compassion: “I’ve noticed this behavior. I care about you, and I’m concerned.” Remember, the behavior is just one part of who they are. You don’t have to analyze or fix it for them. Just let them know that you see what’s going on.
- Know your lane. Encourage your loved one to seek help from an expert. If the behaviors are disrupting your relationship or home life, consult with an expert yourself to learn how to set healthy boundaries. Make sure to establish your own support.
If you are the person struggling with self-destructing behaviors, apply these same principles to your inner self-talk. Be honest with yourself. Show compassion to the part of you that’s trying to numb your pain. And seek help from an expert. As you gain the trust of this fierce, numbing protector, you’ll learn more about the exiled emotions that lie underneath. . . and can then unburden them with the help of God’s loving Spirit. The road to recovery involves facing challenging truths with the help of a wise, compassionate counselor or mentor, or with support groups like AA, NA, Celebrate Recovery, and many others.
If you’re willing to go all-in, you can break free from the chains of self-destructive numbing. You can heal the pain that lies underneath. The hard work will be worth it – for the sake of your relationships, your family, and for the sake of reclaiming the beauty and potential of your own God-created soul.
The journey toward healing can be challenging at first – sometimes it feels worse before it feels better. But it’s absolutely worth it in the long run. Your health depends on it, and your willingness to engage the road toward healing is the best gift you could give your loved ones.
You can get to the root of your pain. And as you face your pain, you can heal it. You can become more whole.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. – John 10:10
*adapted from Chapter 5 of Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies