by Brett Ullman
Nearly 7 years ago I found myself standing in front of more than five hundred people at a large conference where nearly everyone in the audience had their hands raised. Observing the large numbers of people with their hands in the air, I stared, stunned at the numbers of people who acknowledged my question: “Who knows someone who struggles with cutting, depression, anorexia or suicide?” Since this time I have had the opportunity to speak at hundreds of different events and each time I ask this question, 80-90% of the crowd reacts the same way. More disturbingly to me, over the past three years, most of the emails I have received come from students who have dealt with some form of self-injury (SI).
Many of us know people struggle with cutting, suicide, anorexia and bulimia. However, SI does not end here. SI also incorporates people who eat too much, those who work out too little (or too much), people who struggle with substance abuse, people who are sexually promiscuous, people who work too hard (or too little) and the many other ways we abuse ourselves. All of these things hurt us in different ways – all are considered SI.
Believe me – no one gets up in the morning and says: “Today I am going to kill myself”, “Today I am going to cut my body” or “Today I am going to get so wasted …”. Instead, the events that transpire over the course of the day are what cause these tragic events to unfold – Life interrupts. You get up, ready for the day, and life hits you square in the face. You have a fight with you mom, you break up with your boyfriend, you fail a test, you lose a job or one of a thousand other things that happen. You say, “I can’t take this,” and you do something. You have a few drinks, you have promiscuous sex, or you cut yourself all in the name of escaping what is going on in your life.
The goal is to make us forget what we are going through – to leave the pain behind. However, after the SI, whatever it was that prompted us to bleed, either from the heart or from the body or both, is still there. On a podcast this past year, Erwin MacManus said, “I believe that many of us, instead of facing the issues and dealing with them, are leading medicated lives because we don’t have the strength to deal with the lives we already have.” Similarly, Dr. Phil often says, “You can’t change what you will not acknowledge.”
Your story, like mine, likely unfolds using similar themes. Examine the small flow chart below.
Your Story -> Feelings -> Actions
- Your Story is your history, it’s what you struggle with most internally. For some of us, our Story encompasses baggage that we’ve accumulated over the years. It’s an accumulation of emotion we haven’t yet dealt with and, instead, continues to wound us. Breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend, divorce, deaths of family/friends, job loss, and personal failure are all components of Your Story.
- Your Feelings are sentiments you either express publicly or keep bundled up inside. Think back to the last time you struggled with something and try to remember how you were feeling. You were likely feeling angry, alone, scared, hopeless or helpless. When asking people how they felt in those times before they SI, the most common sentiment I hear is, “Just pissed off at the world”.
- Your Actions are an outward expression of what you experience inside. You cut, your drink, you work 80 hours per week.
Notice how in the chart above, Your Story impacts how you feel on a day-to-day basis, and, it’s your Feelings, your mood that determines your Actions? Clearly, our feelings and our actions are a systemic result, like a chain reaction in chemistry, of what we experience in our lives. This makes sense. Stuff happens to me, I feel a certain way, I do stuff based on my mood. This truth, though, introduces something piercingly important: we need to make sure our Story is a good one – otherwise, we run into trouble.
So, how do I make sure my Story is a good one?
First, we need to deal with our History. I have often heard people tell me that they are ‘paralyzed’ by the things that have happened to them in their lives. We need to deal with these things before we graduate High School and continue on to College, marriage and our futures. Far too often, people fail to realize that the ‘paralysis’ they experience in their younger years can easily grow to destroy the futures they dream of. Paralysis is not something that remedies itself without intensive physiotherapy. Similarly, unless we begin rehabilitating our personal histories by dealing with our issues, we will remain paralyzed until we begin the healing process.
Some of the outstanding issues in your past can be fixed:
- if you had a fight with your parents, you may need to speak with them
- if you failed a test, you may need to study more the next time
Some elements of your story are not so easy to resolve because you had no say in how they unfolded:
- you don’t choose to have a best friend die
- you don’t choose to have your parents divorce
For many of our stories, there is no easy remedy and it might mean we need to meet with a counselor in order to resolve the emotional damage that these events have caused.
Secondly, we need to be able to deal with our feelings. Whether you just broke up with someone, had your parents divorce or were physically/mentally abused, the challenge is in learning how you are going to deal with the intense feelings these events have generated. What do you do when you are angry over your parents’ divorce? Is your reaction hurting you further or assisting in the healing process? I once had a heavily pierced and tattooed Grade 12 student approach me and explain to me that when he is really angry – he cooks. Now cooking may not be your thing. Maybe you work out, play XBOX, surf the net, watch the Office or Lost or do something else. For me, working out helps me relax; for others it can intensify these negative feelings. Understand that whatever may work for someone else may not work for you – just make sure what you do is having a positive impact on your Story. I once heard someone say, “You don’t break bad habits, you replace them with good ones.”
I encourage you to do these two things: 1) deal with your past and learn how to deal with your emotions. To continue on this journey of life you need to begin somewhere and I think this is a good place. 2) Remember that the choices you make undoubtedly have an impact on the rest of your life.
Know where you have been
Know where you want to go
Know how to get there