Doctor’s Note: Today’s letter deals with discussions of self-harm.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I don’t know how to explain this, so I’ll give some background. I’m a 25 guy who never kissed a girl or held hands and so on. I’ve been rejected all my life and in many mean ways, always being told I was too ugly, hideous, disgusting, etc. Of course that hurt me a lot back then and destroyed what left of my confidence and hope that maybe someday someone would like and love me. Now I can imagine myself trying to approach someone again, because I’m scared to death that they will say something like that again and I don’t want to bother them if I’m just not good enough.
That’s normal I guess and I would be somewhat ‘fine’ if I just never tried again talking to girls in a romantic way. However, for some reason I keep repeating myself those words and phrases and keep hurting myself emotionally. I tell myself ‘you’re hideous, no one will ever love you’ or ‘you’ll never get a girlfriend and you’ll die alone’ or ‘why you’re so ugly? kill yourself’ and so on. Or, for instance, at night I listen to romantic or some songs that remind me about girlfriends, love and relationships and I search ‘cute couples’ on google images and I spend hours crying and feeling awful and depriving myself of a good sleep (and the next morning, when I’m sleepy at work, I feel even worse for wasting time on that). Sometimes I go as far as texting myself awful things, just to make me cry.
I don’t know how or when I got this habit, but it’s something I deal on a daily basis. I’m going crazy? I’m just broken? This is a side-effect of my loneliness and being unlovable? I don’t know what to do. I can accept and being ok with people being mean to me, maybe I deserve it, but why on earth I hurt myself?
Bad To Me
DEAR BAD TO ME: Hoo boy. This is one of those times where I need to remind folks that Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor, and when you’re dealing with forms of trauma and self-harm — even emotional self-harm — you’re better off talking to a mental health professional.
But look: you’re here, you’re asking me and you’re clearly in pain. So hopefully this will help you get some clarity and get you to a place where you actually go to a therapist.
What you’re doing here is a form of emotional self-harm. It’s like psychic cutting, in a way. A lot of folks who engage in physical self-harm will tell you that doing so gives them a sort of release or euphoria immediately afterwards. Some do so because they’re emotionally numb and they’re trying to feel anything, or they’re trying to release emotional tension. Some will tell you that their harming themselves is because it’s a way of communicating or expressing themselves, usually because they are feeling incredibly strong or intense emotions that they don’t feel that they can express in any other way. Still others do it as a form of control; they feel powerless in their lives, but they’re able to affect their world in this small way… even though it is literally hurting them.
And some do it to punish themselves. They don’t feel like they’re good enough, that they’re “worthy”, or because they’ve committed some egregious “sin” or made some mistake that they don’t feel they can undo, fix or atone for.
I strongly suspect you’re the latter.
You’ve said that you were rejected in cruel ways by people, possibly bullied by them as well. At the risk of making it sound like I’m over-inflating things, that sounds like it was traumatic for you — especially if it’s still affecting you to this degree. Now what you don’t say is when this happened — what age you were, whether this was middle school, high-school, college, etc. Considering that you’re 25, you say this was “all your life” and that it was especially cruel… well, I’m guessing this was likely high-school. And considering how high-school can be, especially in the age of weaponized social media and mass communication… yeah, that s--t can be really goddamn intense.
For all that would-be tough guys like to mask their own emotional wounds with bravado and toxic bulls--t, bullying can be traumatic. It can leave scars — physical and emotional — that can stay with us for a long, long goddamn time. And teenagers are, in a lot of ways, the most vicious because being a teenager is one of the most f--ked-up times in our lives. Everyone’s confused and feeling off-kilter all the time because their bodies are in flux, they’re in a state of trying to figure out who the f--k they are, how societies and relationships work, trying to figure out their place in the world and make decisions that they’re told, over and over again, will affect the course of the rest of their lives. The adults in their lives are often of no use, especially if you’re someone who stands out from the norm — particularly if you’re LGBTQ or neuroatypical — because their own bulls--t and prejudices mean that they either don’t know how to help or won’t.
And unlike when I was a high-schooler, lo more years ago than I care to think, at least s--t at school would stay at school. It’s capacity to follow you home was next to nothing. Now the folks who torment you are able to reach you wherever you are, at any time.
Oh, and it’s also supposed to be the best time of their lives.
Now the tricky thing is that part of growing up and maturing means learning to let go of the past. Not pretending that the past didn’t affect you, but learning how to not let the folks who hurt you keep occupying space in your head, rent-free. In an ideal world, we recognize that the folks who most abused us were s--tbirds and that life is too damn short to give any remaining brain cycles to what assholes think.
(OK in an ideal world this wouldn’t be necessary, but you take my point.)
You learn to make peace with your past self, recognize that your scars mean that you’re a survivor and realize that living well and never giving them another moment of your time is the best revenge. You clean up, you heal and you remember that they don’t get to define you. But the problem a lot of people have is that learning how to reject their reality and substitute your own means that first you have to reject it. And that can be really goddamn hard.
It gets a lot harder if you’ve internalized it and — worse — validated their beliefs by adopting them yourself.
And I think that’s what you’ve done, BTM. I think you’ve taken on their bullying — not rejection, bullying — and internalized it. You, at some point and some level, decided that they must be right. Rather than saying “f--k you, f--k your friends and f--k your thoughts with a big s--tty stick,” you took those beliefs and made them your own. That’s, unfortunately, not uncommon. A lot of victims of bullying or abuse will internalize what their abusers say and blame themselves for the abuse. It’s f--ked up, but it’s a perverse way that people will try to protect themselves. They don’t want to believe that they’re someone who would be abused, or that people could hurt them like this and so they take the responsibility into themselves.
I strongly suspect this is what happened to you, BTM and why you continue to hurt yourself emotionally. It may be about punishing yourself for being abused by them and not standing up for yourself, or it may be that part of you took their bulls--t on, but either way: you’re continuing the abuse by hurting yourself. You’re punishing yourself for the sins of others, sins that were inflicted on you.
And unfortunately, just knowing this doesn’t fix it. Emotional and psychic injuries are harder to heal and take longer, especially when they’re part of a negative pattern in your life that you keep reinforcing. But as I’m often saying: harder isn’t the same as impossible. And while healing isn’t always quick, the sooner you start the process, the sooner you start to get relief.
The first thing you should do is address the symptom; it’s hard enough to heal when you keep reopening the wounds. Dealing with the intrusive thoughts and behaviors is likely going to be the first step. As the old joke goes, if it hurts when you go like this, then stop doing that. Cognitive behavioral therapy is especially useful for dealing with frightening, painful or obsessive intrusive thoughts. Self-directed exercises, like ones available at Mood Gym can go a long way towards helping get those thoughts under control.
However, it’s important to note that while this is a start, it’s not a substitute for therapy. And let’s be clear: this is the sort of thing that you should be talking to a real doctor about. Finding a therapist, especially someone who’s good with intrusive thoughts and self-harm is going to be vital for unpacking and unwarping the s--t that your bullies did to you. You’ve got some wounds that’ve never fully healed, and it seems like there’s debris and infection to boot. To let those wounds finally close, you’re gonna have to debride the wounds and clear the infected tissue. That’s not fun, and it can be a process. But it’s also a necessary one.
But one of the most powerful and important things you can do is to take away your bullies’ power to hurt you. And to do that… you need to forgive yourself. You’re continuing to punish yourself for things that were done to you. They weren’t done because you deserved them, nor were you bullied because you somehow brought it upon yourself. You weren’t targeted because you were lesser or repulsive or what-have-you. You were bullied and abused because people can be cruel and because people will lash out at others in order to secure their own status in a chaotic and turbulent world. They weren’t right, they weren’t justified, and they weren’t telling the truth. They were hurting you for the sake of hurting someone.
It’s time for you to stop carrying their bulls--t for them. And to do that, you forgive yourself. You forgive yourself for giving them validity. You forgive yourself for the things that you think you could have done but didn’t; that wasn’t your fault, but it’s something you’ve clearly taken upon yourself anyway. So you forgive yourself for what you didn’t do; you made the best choices you could at the time, even if you wish you’d done things differently now. You forgive yourself for taking their bulls--t onboard, so that you finally have permission to toss it all aside. And you forgive yourself for the ways you’ve been hurting yourself since. You were hurting and you directed that hurt inward and caused more harm… but you can stop now. You can let it all go. You just have to forgive yourself so that you can give them all the double middle-finger as you walk backwards into a better life.
A life where you don’t punish yourself for the misdeeds of others. A life where you allow yourself to love yourself the way you deserve to be loved. And a world where you throw aside the words and jibes of assholes, because life is too goddamn short to give even a second’s consideration to the opinion of assholes.
And then, as you’re cleaning off your mental slate… hie thyself to the therapist’s office.
It’s time to cleanse the wound and let the healing begin.
You’ve got this, BTM.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org