I have a knack for working with animals… and people. I have found that my success comes from careful (and often unconscious) observation. When I worked in animal control in college, I was the worker with the reputation for being able to handle and calm aggressive and anxious dogs and cats. I would take the time to watch them and pay attention to their reactions to things. Most of the aggression came from fear, so I would volunteer my time and sit with the animals for hours on end, alternately talking to them and just going about my business nearby. I instinctively made my posture non-aggressive (see, leaning to tip-toe around abusive and explosive adults can help with something). I brought animals out of their shells, and worked with them to mold the aggression into acceptable and wanted behaviors.
I have found that most aggression comes from fear. The fear may be deeply rooted and hidden, but it’s almost always there. I have found this true with my reptiles as well as my mammals. I have a snake that will strike wildly whenever I go into her enclosure for any reason. I am working on hook training her and getting her used to handling. When she does not feel cornered or uncomfortable, she is a cuddle bug (yes, snakes do cuddle, they like the warmth after all). By using less intimidating body language and actions, I can communicate to her that I will not try to eat her or harm her in any way.
I think the same is true for people. I think we are either so wounded or so terrified of being wounded that we often lash out in anger. I think the anger is a defense mechanism. People don’t have time to get under your armor if you are busy throwing out spikes. They can’t get close enough to hurt if you run around bearing your teeth and pushing everyone away.
I think this relates to self-harm in some ways. Self-harm is a form of aggression, only against yourself. It is the result of anger and fear turned on the body. It can be preventative – no one can hurt me as much as I can hurt myself; I’m going to get hurt anyway, might as well get a jump on things. It can also be reactive – I screwed that up, so I deserve to be punished for it. Both inadvertently work to keep people at bay. The concept of self-harm is a scary one. Most people will cringe at the thought, and bolt at the sight of it. They will over- or under-react to the news, but rarely be helpful in their reactions at first. Those of our family and friends that have dealt with it in the past react a little better (we have given them reading materials, access to our treaters, insights into our pain), but they still give distance, or at least that is what we hope – that is what I hope. I don’t want questions about my scars. I don’t want to launch into my story with everyone that notices. Why write a blog you may ask? Well, I still want to tell my story, but I like the measure of anonymity the internet provides. I can give you glimpses of my inner crazy, and you won’t change your opinion of me if you see me on the street. If you don’t look closely at my arms, you won’t guess that I struggle (ok, if I’m crying my eyes out, you may have a clue, but that’s rare, especially in public). If you don’t see me on the psych unit, you wouldn’t know I can barely make it through a day without craving peace at least once.
Even those that know me rarely ask about the scars (we are trained to mind our own business, and I doubt they really want an honest answer). They look past it. It’s scary and dangerous to be let into a world that allows someone to do so much physical harm to themselves on purpose. It keeps people from asking with any real honesty what my life is like. They anticipate a drama, so they avoid the inquiry.
The long and short of it is that aggression is a defense mechanism, as is self-harm. It keeps people away from the real you so they can’t reject you and confirm all that you fear about yourself (but in their distance, they confirm that you are not worth it, so it kind of just back-fires).
This train of thought was brought to you by the article I saw online this morning that named 3 small breed dogs as the most aggressive… It got me thinking about the roots of aggression, which lead me to the thoughts on self-harm… lots of branches, but really all the same tree
(I want to add also, that self-harm is not only engaged in for the reasons mentioned above, but they are some big ones. It can also be relief, a grounding method. It can be a visual and outward symbol of inward pain and turmoil. For me, it is mainly a release and grounding method. It also has the added benefit of being somewhat preventative in that I feel no one can ever hurt me more than I can physically hurt myself… it’s really figurative, because it doesn’t really hurt, and mostly it’s trying to prevent further emotional pain, but it has still been a reason in the past).