Reasons We Self-Attack

Upset girl sits hugging her kneesThis is a continuation of last month’s article, “Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?” After learning to identify self-destructive behavior in ourselves, we can explore why we do it and the possible motivations behind vicious cycles of attacking ourselves. It may come from past trauma, abuse, neglect, or a number of other things that may have caused low self-esteem. Below are seven reasons people attack themselves.

1. Imitating Parents
We all learn how to take care of ourselves from imitating how our parents or other caretakers take care of us. When parents or caretakers attack children emotionally, verbally, or physically, children learn to attack themselves like their parents do. Practicing over and over, people become good at self-attack and carry the skill into adulthood. It becomes an integral part of regular daily life, almost like breathing.

2. Method of Discipline
Often caretakers don’t teach children how to set limits, or boundaries, how to structure themselves, or reward themselves. These skills are needed for discipline (which is sticking with things that are hard in the present, in order to achieve a longer-term desire). If people do not learn these skills, their way of disciplining themselves can be to attack themselves, when they don’t do what they think they “should.” For example, “Stop being lazy and stupid and do your homework.” Or, “Don’t eat that pie, you’re a fat pig!” This method of shaming can provide some rudimentary support for getting through obstacles to something one wants, but it causes a great deal of destruction in the process, and often backfires—causing rebellion against the “discipline.”

3. Lack of Information about their Value
When children don’t feel valued by their caretakers, they naturally conclude they have no value. This conclusion colors the way they see themselves in every aspect of their lives. The message that they have no value becomes a pretty constant “voice” in their thoughts that follows them into adulthood. This conclusion that they have no value can come from caretakers overtly shaming kids.

But it can also come from neglect, or lack of love or attention. Children who don’t get what they need emotionally gather that they must not have deserved it. This can even happen when there is no abuse involved. For example, children who are adopted into a loving family may determine that they had no value to their birth parents, and therefore aren’t worthy of much from others they encounter.

4. Preserving Parents and Power
When caretakers are brutal, absent, or unable to meet the emotional, needs of their children, the children have a choice to conclude either that there is something wrong with the parent or caretaker who is causing pain the child experiences, or there is something wrong with “me” (the child) for causing the caretaker’s behavior. For the child to conclude it is the parent, generally means acknowledging that the parent isn’t competent to take good care of their children.

For a child, not having a competent caretaker is life-threatening. So children generally do anything to avoid believing that their parent is unable to take care of them. This leaves children with the only other conclusion they can come to, given their limited experience, and great need—that there is something wrong with themselves. This preserves the belief that the parent is safe to depend on, and has the added advantage of allowing children to believe they have some control in their painful circumstances.

If I, as the child, believe I caused the abuse, then I can also believe that changing my behavior will stop the abuse. If I am a helpless victim of my caretaker, there is very little hope for my life to improve. So, most children attack themselves when their parents are hurting them to preserve their positive image of their parents, and to give themselves an illusion of control over the hurt, abuse or neglect.

5. Guilt
Sometimes children blame themselves for anything that goes wrong in the family (illness, death, mental illness, accidents, injuries, divorce, etc.) for various reasons. Common motives for self-blame include misunderstanding, attempting to feel powerful, being blamed for the problem by someone else, or, on occasion, having something directly to do with what went wrong. Children can carry that guilt into adulthood, punishing themselves with self-attack about much more than the original problem.

6. Imitating Peers
Sometimes people are repeatedly shamed, but not by parents or caretakers. Instead, siblings, and/or peers may be responsible. This can also turn the child’s belief system into one that legitimizes the bad treatment. They take on the belief that they deserve it. When they come to this conclusion, they have learned to continue this attack inside themselves.

7. A Way of Coping
Children who are overwhelmed with their feelings and are not given any skills for handling them have to scramble to use whatever resources they have to deal with these feelings on their own. Sometimes one of these resources is self-attack. Rather than feeling sharp, intense or disorienting emotional pain, children can convert these overwhelming, confusing feelings into a focused activity.

In multiple cases, self attack presents itself as a way of coping that seems to bring matters under the child’s control. When this happens, there is actually some comfort associated with self-attacking thoughts, just as there can be comfort in starving or cutting oneself. This is one reason cognitive-behavioral therapy alone often doesn’t work—people can not afford to give up thoughts they depend on to comfort themselves.

People attack themselves as a method of self-defense, coping, or due to the fact that we all, especially as children, are hard-wired neurologically to imitate those around us. In therapy, we find the origins of the self-attack and the purposes we use it toward. We then look for ways to provide the same functions without the negative consequences self-attack brings with it.

In some cases of rewiring, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is a helpful option. In other cases, imitating the therapist offers a transitional alternative to the results of imitation of critical parents. However we get there, all of us ultimately have to become nurturing, compassionate parents to ourselves. That is the goal of childhood and good parenting, just as it is the badge of happiness and adulthood.

© Copyright 2010 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Dionne S.

    Dionne S.

    June 14th, 2010 at 2:37 PM

    When I was small, my dad never had a good word to say to me. The only time he opened his mouth was to criticize or bawl me out. On the days he didn’t, I was invisible to him. Many a night I prayed for those invisible days.

  • catherine d

    catherine d

    June 14th, 2010 at 4:05 PM

    I have always self attacked just because that is my way of trying to motivate myself to go further and do better. It does pretty well for me but I have never really looked at why I do this and why this is the motivator that works for me. I guess because my parents did this and I always tried to do my best to prove them wrong? And I guess I am still trying to do this even today?

  • ashley

    ashley

    June 14th, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    a person may also be influenced to act on self harm if he/she is convinced by others’ words that he/she is worthless and is not capable of just anything at all…this may also lead to hurting oneself in a fatal way.

  • Clayton

    Clayton

    June 14th, 2010 at 4:32 PM

    That was interesting about the method of discipline, Cynthia. My parents didn’t believe in disciplining you in any way. They thought you should be free to develop as you chose growing up, and take the consequences of those choices. The choices would be your life lessons and you’d learn to set your own boundaries.

    Well, that didn’t do me a bit of good. Maybe that works when you’re fifteen and can understand the concept, not when you’re five. I grew up wild and did nothing I was supposed to right. Schoolwork, chores, friendships…they all suffered because of my selfishness and laziness. Now I can’t keep myself on task with anything.

  • themuse

    themuse

    June 14th, 2010 at 8:27 PM

    “This preserves the belief that the parent is safe to depend on, and has the added advantage of allowing children to believe they have some control in their painful circumstances.”

    I often wondered how kids can end up thinking something is wrong with them and not the abusive or neglectful parent. Thanks for going into that in detail in that section Cynthia. Poor kids, having to carry that thought around with them.

  • David

    David

    June 15th, 2010 at 12:09 AM

    My parents always promised rewards and without fail, never delivered. You’d think I’d have learned the older I got, but I didn’t and fantasized they’d come through. “Work hard at school and we’ll get you a bike this summer.” No bike. “Do extra chores and you can have a puppy for Christmas.” No puppy. And so on and so on. I guess they were just preparing me for my life of disappointments. I don’t promise anyone anything.

  • Cynthia Lubow

    Cynthia Lubow

    June 15th, 2010 at 12:54 AM

    Thank you all for telling us about your experiences with this! I felt so sad to read about all the criticism and contempt some of you grew up with, and that still follows you around in your head whereever you go. It is astonishing how prevalent this is. I do believe that a pattern of motivating with shame is always hurtful to a person’s happiness and wholeness. I think we can learn better ways to motivate ourselves that don’t hurt us. Sometimes we have to unlearn the shame method before we can learn a new method.

    I also firmly believe we incorporate into our personality how we are treated as children. Even when parents have good intentions, if they (or some important adult) don’t show you how to set limits for yourself–first by doing it for you, then gradually letting you take over more and more of it–it is difficult to learn this.

    I will talk about this in more detail at some point, but I believe parents’ job is to teach their children how to be good parents for themselves as adults. When we reach adulthood without all those skills, we flounder. Good, nurturing, protective adult relationships can also incorporate those skills into an adult’s personality. EMDR can even speed up the process. If you aren’t familiar with EMDR, check out the videos that explain and demonstrate it on this site: EMDRinAction.com.

  • Hannah

    Hannah

    June 15th, 2010 at 3:05 AM

    I don’t know why but I just don’t think I am as good as my colleagues at my work place…I have a few friends at the designing firm that I work at but although my friends tell me that I am very creative,I just cant see what is better in my designs compared to others’.

    I am sure I am not as good.And the bosses never think I am the best.It implies I am not great and that my friends say I am just to make me feel good…I do not know whether I am attacking myself but then I really don’t think my work is great:(

  • Dianna

    Dianna

    June 15th, 2010 at 4:41 AM

    I guess my own self attacking stems from feeling a need for discipline and this is just how I let myself have it. I had very absent parents when Iw as growing up and like so mnay kids unwittingly needed that discipline that they were not around to dole out. They kind of let all of us run wild, which felt great for about two seconds but then leaves you wondering if they really love you or care about you or anything that you do. I think that is why I am so hard on my own self now. I crave that rigor and discipline that I did not get growing up and figure that I am the only one who can make me stay the straight and narrow now. It is a miracle me and my siblings made it thru it all in one piece and my way of preserving that is to self atatck, maintain discipline and order in my life that I did not experience as a kid.

  • KathyC

    KathyC

    June 15th, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    This only underscores how important it is to communicate love, wants and needs within a family and as parents.

  • linda

    linda

    June 15th, 2010 at 12:03 PM

    it is important that parents never over-stretch their children and even if the kid has failed to deliver the results in something,they should not make the child feel like its the end of the world…a more subtle way of dealing with the situation would be to tell the child that there’s always another chance and also by helping the child the next time and making sure that whatever goal was set is achieved and the child be made to feel that he/she has done a major part of it.

  • iMan

    iMan

    June 15th, 2010 at 3:46 PM

    I am always happy with what I do and I really pity those who attack themselves or undermine themselves…When something I do does not turn out right,I do not lose sleep over it or curse myself for it.All I do is ask myself if I did put in my best effort.If I have then I sleep peacefully.If I didn’t,its my mistake and I try and make amends the next time.Its simple,isn’t it? :)

  • Fletcher

    Fletcher

    June 15th, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    Great articles, Cynthia. I’m enjoying your series. Thanks for sharing. Will we be seeing more from your pen? I hope so.

  • Yvonne

    Yvonne

    June 15th, 2010 at 7:30 PM

    With all due respect, I disagree. Attacking yourself can be motivating. I’d call it giving myself a good telling-off, not attacking myself. When I procrastinate I do that to kick my own butt the way my dad would have if he’d been here. He never accepted anything less than 110% effort. You really think I’m damaging myself too when I do that? Hmmm…

  • Lesley

    Lesley

    June 15th, 2010 at 8:51 PM

    I tell my kids every day how much I love them and am proud of them. They are at the age now where they think Mom is an embarrassment to be seen with. They roll their eyes when I say it and grab a quick hug between chuckles. I don’t mind. I remember feeling the same about my mom when I was a teenager or at least appearing as if I didn’t like being told that. Secretly, I loved it. It made me the confident, secure woman I am today.

  • Dylan

    Dylan

    June 15th, 2010 at 11:42 PM

    When I was a kid we had a response for name callers.

    Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. And when I die and go to my grave, you’ll suffer for what you called me.

    Who says self talk’s a modern invention. :)

  • Emma

    Emma

    June 16th, 2010 at 3:08 PM

    How can an adoptive parent change the child’s point of view? My 4 year old grandson’s adopted. What can be done to ensure he never feels that he’s not valued because he was given away? Can you stop that if they are young enough? We love him to death and it brings tears to my eyes to think he may have that thought in his head when he gets older.

  • Paulette

    Paulette

    June 16th, 2010 at 4:52 PM

    When my first husband and I split up, I had to make it very clear to my son that it wasn’t his fault. He was young and had been playing up as kids do. Little did I know he thought he was to blame. There had been an enormous argument over an expensive birthday present he’d only had days then broken.

    It was weeks before he blurted out that it was his fault. What a shock that was to me. He’d got into trouble for being so careless, yes, but thinking we’d get divorced because of that? It would be funny if it wasn’t sad. You never know how little minds work.

  • Valerie

    Valerie

    June 16th, 2010 at 10:36 PM

    You’d think if a child was being attacked by their peers, they would do the opposite and give themselves positive self-talk to boost their self-esteem…

  • Chloe

    Chloe

    June 17th, 2010 at 7:44 PM

    Easier said than done Valerie! Bullies, whether family or peers, wear down your self-esteem. They make you question any shred of self-worth you have with their relentlessness. I’ve been there and it’s not as easy as just telling yourself they are wrong. Your confidence is at rock bottom. It hurts. A lot.

  • Hester

    Hester

    June 17th, 2010 at 9:54 PM

    It’s hard to not jump into the self-criticism pond when you’ve done nothing else all your life. When you become aware you do it and watch your thoughts, you’ll be shocked at how many times you do put yourself down. The good news is that correction is possible. Be good to yourself and change.

  • Cynthia Lubow

    Cynthia Lubow

    July 7th, 2010 at 3:29 AM

    It’s so interesting to read about all of our various experiences and points of view. I do still believe that at least most of the time shame is counter-productive and harmful. If shame serves to make people treat other people right, I think empathy and compassion for others works better. If shame serves to discipline one’s own behavior, I think “remembering what you want” (a timeless piece of wisdom I picked up from my friend who is a folk singer and rabbi) works better, without the damage. If you mow the lawn because you shame yourself into it by saying “I’m a lazy, useless lump no one will ever love,” you may mow the lawn(or you may not out of despair from the shame), but you will have done damage. If you mow the lawn because you “remember” that you feel good when you get that exercise, and you enjoy how the lawn looks when you mow it, you have not done damage, and have gotten the same positive result.

    As for kids, their needs and feelings have to be understood and valued for them to thrive. They need help talking about and understanding their own feelings and needs. One of those needs is for limits and boundaries and another is to be motivated to do what is healthy, even when it means giving up something in the short-term, for something they need more that will come in the long-term. This is what doing homework is about. In the short-term, homework can be hard and not fun. Kids need to learn that doing something hard and not fun can be necessary to get something wonderful later. This reward system, which includes experiencing themselves as mastering hard challenges over time gives people natural discipline, motivation and self-esteem.

    One mistake that many loving parents make is wanting to protect their children from pain or hardship. This can give the message to kids that feelings should be avoided if they’re painful, and doesn’t give them help learning how to deal with inevitable emotional pain. This is why it is important to give kids natural limits, and help them express and deal with the frustration. It’s also why it is better to give children the opportunity to express their painful feelings than try to prevent them. In the adoption example, loving an adopted child and parenting him in ways that will teach him to eventually parent himself lovingly is the best thing you can do. He may still feel hurt and abandoned by his birth parents, but he will have tools to deal with those feelings. If you earnestly (understandably) want him not to have to feel that pain, he may get the subtle message that he’s not supposed to have those feelings, or at least not talk about them, and may feel shame about them, and miss the opportunity to learn how to resolve painful feelings.

    Believe me, I know how hard all of this is–I have two teenagers. We don’t want our children not to be capable of shame and guilt, because then they are not capable of empathy either. When my older son is cruel to my younger one, I want him to stop because he feels how much he’s hurting his brother and can’t bear to do that. If there’s any non-shaming way to do that, I prefer that. But just as I don’t want him to grow up thinking “I’m a hurtful person no one will love,” I don’t want the opposite pitfall of his thinking “I’m just having fun and if it hurts him, it’s not my responsibility.” This is the only reason I say shame is “at least most of the time…counter-productive.” Many people are very hurt by frequently shaming themselves–I don’t want that for anyone–but I do want people to be capable of shame if they were to do hurtful things, so they just don’t do them.

  • Maggie

    Maggie

    June 20th, 2011 at 10:10 PM

    Excellent, thoughtful and educational Cynthia, thank you. I wondered how the controlling aspects of hurting oneself play out in soothing emotional pain, I never understood it.
    You simply write the truth as I have seen it in my parenting. Boundaries are essential and show your children how to set their own healthy limits, talking about emotions even if they are painful with our kids teaches them how to deal with them when they come up.
    I have found Pema Chodrens teachings about gentle-ness with yourself extending out to others to be helpful. It has helped me to learn compassion for myself and thereby extends itself outwards. I see parallels when you write about parenting oneself. When I mess up I say it’s okay sweetie, you’ll learn from this and do better next time. I did this as a practice to teach myself how to unlearn the hurtful old pattern of chastizing myself and making myself feel worse over actions. Instead of shane, blaming, and ridiculing myself I comforted myself and it has become a way of life that I now pass on to my child. It makes me want to empower others instead of making the bag boy at the supermarket feel like a jerk when he doesn’t follow direction well, I want to encourage him to do better with a comforting thought and I swear it would make for a more compassionate culture if more of us did it as a practice. Unlearning the painful patterns of our childhoods takes time but is a worthy journey.
    You are passing on very good information, agian , thank you.

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