Do you take the side against yourself?
Self destructive (or dysregulated) behaviours can be defined as any behaviour that is harmful or potentially harmful towards the person who engages in the behaviour. This can include eating disorders, substance abuse, sex addiction, chronic avoidance and at the extreme end, self injury and suicide attempts.
On the outside it can look as though a person is intentionally sabotaging themselves. It can be deeply upsetting and frustrating to watch a loved one consistently run into the fire and get themselves burnt again and again by whatever behaviour it is they are engaging in, because the answer seems so clear from the outside. Sometimes the right answer is also the painful one and so the harmful behaviour continues, a cycle, that will not end until the unresolved issues are dealt with.
For it’s never what we see on the surface that needs to be addressed, but often, an internal issue.
There has been a direct link between depression and high risk behaviours as a person can use destructive behaviour as a way to avoid extreme emotional pain, e.g.: someone who turns to substance abuse may be trying to ‘numb’ the emotional pain of ‘difficult’ feelings such as shame, guilt or anger.
One might use destructive behaviour as a coping mechanism, for example in a relationship, a person of low self esteem, who fears they may be rejected on some level, may then sabotage the relationship themselves by behaving in an unacceptable manner and thereby getting the result of being rejected, which goes on to only add more to their low self worth.
Before we behave in any way, we usually have made certain decisions whereby we consider how our behaviour will affect us, now and in the future, how it will affect others, whether it will harm anyone, ourselves included. However, when participating in self-destructive behaviour, it can almost be impulsive and led by fear of something. Sometimes a person may be unaware that they are even sabotaging or harming themselves in this manner and it can take someone showing them and that can often be a counsellor, a life coach, or someone who is able to make this person look at their decision making and deeper issues.
So what leads people to self destructive behaviour?
We all need validation, knowing that we are loved, capable, heard, held, appreciated and significant all counts towards that. Humans are social creatures and connecting to others is important to us whether we realise it or not, ‘If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find’, (Professor Pete Cohen).
This suggests that self destructive behaviour can be an attempt to make up for a lack of connection, or validation; via harmful substances, in a lifestyle, with a ‘crowd’ that may not be good for us, in danger and risk taking, to hurting ourselves physically and mentally, to being punished, to being noticed, any one of these could be a cry for help, from a person who feels that no one cares.
So many of us walk around with our own past and present pain, and we can be intentionally hurting ourselves as well as unintentionally hurting others as a consequence of this. It is very easy to hurt those closest to us. Therefore we have to look at self destructive behaviours through an emphatic eye and realise that there may be suffering behind these actions. There may be a need that wants fulfilling, an inner child needing validation perhaps.
Self belief has a lot of importance here, as self destructive behaviour can stem from a lack of confidence, an inability to deal with the stress or anxiety brought on by certain real or imagined situations and so it is ‘easier’ to avoid the situation altogether. People may not even try at something they may succeed at because they are scared of failing and whilst this isn’t self destructing, it is self limiting and harms us in the way that it stops our self growth.
As Muslims we are accountable for our behaviour towards ourselves and to others who would be affected by our behaviour. We are not permitted to harm ourselves or even kill ourselves. Allah says in the Quran ‘Let not your own hands contribute to your destruction’ (02:195 Surah al-Baqarah). Our bodies are an amanah for us. We should also take care of our souls. The Prophet PBUH said, ‘Your Lord has a right on you and your soul has a right on you; so you should give the rights of those who has a right on you’, (Narrated Abu Juhaifa). Just as we have to give others their rights over us, we also have to give our own rights to ourselves and the way we take care of ourselves or destroy ourselves will be accounted for.
We are commanded to take care of our health, from the food we put into our bodies, to the food we put in our minds, from the harmful things we could see and hear to the harmful things we could feel and experience. This is essential for our mental health as we know that the thoughts we have can make our reality. Intrusive and negative thoughts can lead to a lot of unwanted hardship.
So how can we help? Empathy goes a long way in understanding what is behind a person’s behaviour. Both Compassion Focused Therapy and DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) can help people with issues of self destructive behaviour. DBT, which is similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, embraces on accepting the person as they are and helping them understand why they may be involved in certain behaviours and the therapist will validate the person by coming from a place of empathy, and understanding as to why they can see how this behaviour has been learnt. Then the focus is on changing the unhelpful behaviours by replacing them with more positive behaviours and also looking at triggers and trying to find a way to react differently.
Compassion Focused Therapy involves compassionate mind training which can then be used to help in dealing with difficult emotions such as anxiety, anger, shame and self criticism. It is particularly helpful to those who have trouble being kind towards themselves as it teaches self compassion. Mindfulness is used as a way to practice breathing and letting emotions come and go without having to react in a negative way. Teaching people to deal with difficult emotions can go very far in helping them with behavioural issues, but it starts with understanding them yourself and breaking down common taboos.
How incredible would it be if we were equipped to equip others with the right tools to love themself and take them off the path of destruction? How incredible would it be if those who are on the path of self destruction felt comfortable enough in their own communities to finally reach out for help?