Being Cruel to Oneself

A Guide in Humane Awareness

The act of attempting suicide is probably the cruelest thing one can do to oneself. As mentioned previously, many years ago, I created a suicide prevention site for those who are despairing and contemplating suicide. Most people who attempt suicide do not want to die. They simply want relief from the pain they are experiencing and can see no end to their suffering.

Cruelty to oneself, regardless of degree, originates from unexpressed suffering. Some people who wrote me shared that they suffered from various forms of eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, or were involved with self-harm such as cutting their bodies.

Cruelty to oneself can be a misguided attempt to build self-esteem in being able to endure pain, or can be a means of self-punishment because one feels unworthy, or to simply have the sensation and visual physical proof that one is alive. The roots of these acts stem from a desire to be heard, listened to and treated with humane respect and love. Sadly, these people never learned how to cope with stress or overwhelming feelings. Often, these people have suffered physical and mental abuse as children, and were discouraged from expressing emotions, particularly anger and sadness.

Cruelty to oneself can also take the form of over-eating, smoking, drug taking, the excessive consumption of alcohol, over-exercising, workaholism, reckless driving, pathological gambling, compulsive shopping, excessive risk taking and self-sabotaging behaviors. In each of these situations, the individual has lost the sense that she or he is an individual of unique quality and has become fixated on what they perceive they do not have, whether this may mean money, prestige, "looks," power, intelligence, education, a nurturing relationship or whatever the individual feels is missing in one's life.

While the above examples of cruelty to oneself are physically manifested, many more people suffer from self-defeating and self-criticizing behaviors. This negative self-talking robs the individual of the inherent creativity within their being through emphasizing on past failures, having impossibly high standards, ignoring past accomplishments and successes, or calling oneself names like "stupid," "weak," or "incapable." Frequently these behaviors are learned in childhood where the individual was told repeatedly that he or she was stupid, weak or incapable.

Cruelty to oneself can also take the form of looking to external sources for validation of approval and lying to oneself and others. So often we hear about a battered spouse who endures a violent and destructive relationship because she or he, although most frequently she, is incapable of facing and telling the truth about the situation she is in, and lies to herself and others about the degree of suffering experienced. The lying results from the desire to have external validation which includes the wish to be always well thought of.

Another form of self-cruelty takes the form of denying oneself simple pleasure or delight in the goodness that life does offer because one feels that one is not worthy or that other people are worthier. It is a form of self-punishment that is never fulfilled because life frequently presents opportunities for one to enjoy living. This joy in life may come from the kindness of others, a compliment, a token of affection, the appreciation of nature or simply the company of good friends and family.

Thinking bad of others, gossiping, excessive distrust and doubting, hating and repeatedly finding fault with others are other forms of self-cruelty because they allow the individual to be stuck in negative thought processes that lead to one taking life too seriously. Life is a serious event, but when we take life too seriously, we rob ourselves of the spontaneity and creative intelligence that full living provides.

When you had the experience:

  • What were you aware of?

  • What thoughts were you thinking?

  • What were you feeling?

  • What were you doing at the time?

Here is my personal experience in which I was cruel towards myself:

  • What were you aware of?

    How hung over I was feeling and that I was suffering from alcohol poisoning.

  • What thoughts were you thinking?

    I should never have eaten the fruit at the bottom of the Sangria bowl.

  • What were you feeling?

    Like death warmed over.

  • What were you doing at the time?

    Getting out of bed.

It is sad to note that every year there are fatal alcohol poisoning incidents that occur due to college fraternity initiation rites and drinking games. The following is just one account:

"On the evening of Sept. 16 2004, Gordie Bailey and 26 other Chi Psi pledges were blindfolded and left in the woods near Gold Hill. They were told to drink vast amounts of Ten High whiskey and Carlo Rossi wine, according to police.

By the time the pledges were driven back to the Boulder fraternity house, police said, Bailey was "sick and visibly intoxicated."

By 11 p.m., fraternity members carried him to a couch and gave him a metal bucket. ...

Shortly before 9 a.m., Bailey was found face down on the floor next to the couch and could not be revived. An autopsy shows that he died from alcohol poisoning with a blood-alcohol level of 0.328 percent." ¹

Here is a situation where someone is encouraged and goaded into being cruel to oneself. Young people, often when they start smoking cigarettes, find inhaling to be difficult and unpleasant, but force themselves to smoke out of peer pressure. In both cases, care for oneself is superceded by an external element or force.

It is odd to discover that when the word "cruelty" is googled, the results obtained, primarily, relate to the way people treat animals. There are very few links related to humans being cruel to humans, as if human cruelty towards humans doesn't register within our consciousness. In actual fact, we can hear about humans being cruel towards other humans everyday from the media. We just do not name it as such.

Similarly, we do not generally think about being cruel to ourselves because the topic is not specifically in the vernacular of every day discussion. Yet many people are cruel towards themselves in the unkind, harsh, or not-caring treatment of their bodies, minds and spirits.

In this section on cruelty, the concept of a Spectrum of Cruelty was introduced. We have explored how cruelty can manifest in a variety of ways, and how we unwittingly and wittingly abet cruelty in the world. We have seen how cruel behavior can be encouraged in others and ourselves. In addition, the notion that an act of cruelty towards another is an attempt to have power over another was introduced. Finally, we have discovered when we create "The Other" through our cruel actions, we inevitably end up creating an "Other" within ourselves, leaving us with a fragmented psyche.

In the introductory chapter of this course, entitled, How this Course Works, you were asked to list words that resonate with your understanding of the concepts Cruel and Cruelty.

Take a few minutes to think about other words that you can now add to this list:

With your expanded knowledge of cruelty and its ramifications, you will now be more aware, thoughtful, compassionate, and proactive in your relations with others and yourself. You may even become motivated to prevent and stop cruelty in your sphere of influence, helping the world evolve towards its humane potential.


Copyright © Kenneth Hemmerick 2005
All Rights Reserved

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