Self-Injury: A Study of Shame

Self injury is a phenomenon that is complex in its causes, its manifestations, its purposes, and treatment. Variants of this behavior can be traced throughout centuries and cultures, but has been regarded by Western cultures as taboo and responded with fear and disgust. Only within the past twenty years have researchers and the medical community begun to see self-inflicted injury as a response to extreme emotional distress which is reaching contagion proportions. Aside from psychotic cases, the self-injurer is usually a woman who is well educated and friendly, but has an extremely difficult time articulating thoughts and feelings, and suffers from low self-esteem and often self-hatred. Self-injury is an attempt to regulate overwhelming emotions, and is not a suicidal attempt. It is a self-preservation mechanism. She usually comes from a family environment that was neglectful or abusive with a cold, rejecting mother and distant and hypercritical father. Shame is closely connected with self-injury through secondary shame concerning negative reaction of others, scarring, and the compulsive, uncontrollable need to self-inflict. It is the hypothesis of this paper to show that primary shame, which has become internalized through the formation of a shame-based identity, is the underlying reason that drives the symptoms and behavior. How Adlerian assumptions relate to self-injury is discussed, along with how internalized shame could be the foundation and substance of the inferiority complex.

Janice E. Winnes
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