Dear Friends of Hope Biblical Counseling Center,
Rarely, do I send out articles by other people. However, the following article by Dr. Rick Carter is a very helpful article for those dealing with emotional pain. You may see more of Dr. Carter’s material at http://www.hope4addictions.com.
Director, Hope Biblical Counseling Center
In recent years I have been having to answer the question about why young people cut themselves on a regular basis. I must confess that I know what I was taught about the issue, yet I was never satisfied with the answer myself. This issue has become more and more significant over the last decade and is reaching epidemic proportions if it hasn’t already. Why would a young person take a razor and cut their bodies? As I examined this question in greater detail I began to look for studies that would detail the reason given by people who cut. I had talked to some and seemed to always get the same answers, “I don’t know, it just makes me feel better.” Or “I just hurt inside so much and the pain helps me cope with it.”
To a right thinking person this sounds absurd, how could hurting yourself more help you feel better? Yet as I searched I found that this kind of expression among those caught in this behavior is common. The core issue is that they have a significant sense of emotional pain that they have no idea how to overcome. I read one account of a young woman who would faint at the sight of blood and would cut herself so that she would pass out and thus would not have to face the pain that was there when she was awake. As strange as it sounds this behavior becomes habit forming and what a person first does to escape becomes a trap that they cannot seem to get free from.
A deeper consideration of this topic led me to consider that if cutting is a way of emotional escape it is probably not the only avenue. After all, how many have used alcohol or drugs as escape hatches for their problems? What about men who trying to escape conflict with their wives turn to pornography or girls who in trying to deal with abuse become promiscuous? Likewise, the idea of escape that some teenage boys will take in fantasy is dramatic, ranging from pornography to roll playing games which is a possible reason why so many are addicted to video games. They prefer the fantasy to having to face reality.
Reality is painful, reality has no answers that they can see, thus retreating into their escape pod they have solitude and even what seems to be comfort for a time. I am not saying that everyone who cuts, drinks, sleeps around, looks at porn or plays video games is coping with emotional pain. I am saying that these have become a common refuge for multitudes who do not know how to deal properly with emotional pain. While searching for answers to this topic I was also reading a book by Heath Lambert titled “A Theology of Biblical Counseling. This book is not directed to the topic of cutting it was simply a book which had come up in my regular reading plan. In this book however, Mr. Lambert briefly talks about a girl that he counseled on the issue of cutting who had found identification with her problem in Psalm 55. There was very little to no elaboration on this Psalm other than the fact that it had helped this young lady. Seeing a possibility I quickly turned to the Psalm and began to read, what I found has been a bright light to my understanding.
In Psalm 55 David gives four points of expression that relate directly to the issues at hand. First, he expresses the problem of emotional pain in verses 4-5, “My heart is sore pained within me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me.” What a powerful expression of the entire gambit of emotional pain! He speaks of his heart being sore pained, terrors, fearfulness, trembling, horror and being overwhelmed, this type of emotional stress can certainly paralyze a person and would no doubt cause you to want to escape the situation that you were facing.
This isn’t the only time that David talked about his struggle with the pain of his emotions. He says in Psalm 25:16-18 “Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my distresses. Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins.” The heart being troubled is something that everyone faces at times. Troubles are a normal part of life and all of us will experience some or even much emotional pain in our lives. The source of the conflict that we face is often what determines the level of pain that it produces in our hearts. This is expressed very directly by David in Psalm 55:12-14 when he says, “For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.”
The problem is magnified when it is someone who is close to us that hurts us. We have defenses against those who we don’t know or who we know are hostile toward us, they can hurt us but not with the deep pain that can be caused by those who are closest to us. There are three sources for this deep pain that I have identified as general areas which I call the A B C’s of emotional pain. A stands for abuse, it could be verbal, mental, emotional, physical or sexual in nature. Abuse most often comes from someone who is very close to you. A parent, close family member or friend who abuses you certainly causes a severe emotional trauma in an individual. B stands for betrayal, certainly when a person who is close to you abuses you this a betrayal but there are other kinds of betrayal as well. A husband or wife who cheats, a teenage child who defies their parents, a friend who tells a confidence, an authority who abuses their position or knowledge, betrayal can take many forms. C stands for conflict, this could be conflict between you and someone close or even the conflict of people who are close to you such as your parents who try to draw you into their fight. The emotional pain of seeing your family torn apart by conflict is dramatic for a young person.
All of these sources feed a reservoir of pain that builds up in the heart and if there is not an adequate way to release it the natural reaction is to try to escape it. David expresses this himself in verses 6-8 of Psalm 55 by saying, “And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. Selah. I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest.” Does this not sound like a familiar refrain to your own heart? I just want to get away from my problems, I don’t know what to do about them, I don’t know how to cope with them and without answers and without hope we look for the nearest escape hatch. The problem with escape is that it does nothing to deal with the problems that we have. As a matter of fact trying to escape your problems is like building a dam on the reservoir of emotional pain in your heart. All this does is cause the emotional pain to build up even more behind the dam of escape. Getting drunk or high cannot solve the problem of emotional pain, it only makes you useless and poor. Cutting yourself only leaves you with scars it doesn’t take away the emotional pain that is tearing you up inside. The reality is that the buildup of emotional pain behind the dam of escape often just causes a person to have to build a higher wall to keep the compounding pain inside. They get deeper and deeper into the addiction hoping to escape only to find that it has multiplied their problems beyond control. Ultimately this is the reason that the suicide rate is skyrocketing, when you have no path but escape eventually you choose the greatest escape possible.
Escape is a temporary and ineffective method of coping with emotional pain. David realized this and determined to take a different course. The path that he chose instead is one of outlet rather than escape. He says in Psalm 55:16-17 “As for me, I will call upon God; and the LORD shall save me. Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.” As for me, that is an interesting statement. Many take the rout of escape, I feel like taking it myself but as for me there is a different course that I will take. Instead of hiding I will learn to pour out this pain inside of me and let it out so that it doesn’t build up and destroy me. Not long ago I was doing a study in Ephesians 5 and I spent some time considering verse 26 it says, “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,” To be sanctified means to be set apart, who doesn’t want to be set apart from their problems? To be cleansed means that the bad things are washed away, this is exactly what we want when we are facing emotional pain, we want to be set apart from it and have all the bad washed away from us. The source of this sanctifying and cleansing is said to be the word.
The word here I believe implies two different things. First it certainly applies to the Bible. The Bible searches us and directs us. As I was thinking about that in relationship to this issue I began to consider the fact that the Psalms are songs. They are the expressions of the heart put to music. That is what music is, it is an expression of the soul. People are drawn to the type of music that best expresses what is in their soul. Music reinforces what we are already feeling and develops it. A young person who begins to listen to hard rock is influenced by the music but only because they were first attracted to it as an expression of what they were already feeling. When we are sad we like sad songs and when we are glad we like glad songs, it is not rocket science it is simple to observe. As such God who created us placed a source within His Word that would help us to identify the feelings in our heart. God records more than 150 songs in the Bible including, Psalms, Song of Solomon, Lamentations and more, this is no accident.
When you face emotional pain you can go to the Bible and read until you find the feelings that you are dealing with expressed and know that God is touched with the feelings of your infirmity. He understands what you feel and He even wrote about it in His Word. The best part of this is that He also gave you an answer for that particular pain in almost every place that He speaks of it. Seeing that expression of your pain in the Bible will help you to identify it and deal with it. Not only this, but it will help you learn how to express your heart to God. You can start that by praying the very words that have spoken to you, and follow that up with the practice of pouring out all the specifics of your problem to God and just how you feel about it.
David often in the Psalm pours his heart out to God including what he wishes would happen to the offenders in vivid detail, this is not wrong, it is God teaching you how to drain the swamp of emotional pain. David calls it something beautiful in Psalm 55:22 when he says, “Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.” Casting your burdens on the LORD is what you must learn to do. The problem is that the devil has tricked you into thinking that you can cast them somewhere else. The Catholic church says you can cast them on the priest, the psychologist says that you can cast them in his office, society says you can cast them on your friends and social media says you can cast them on the web but none of these places work to actually remove the pain, often they just reinforce the idea that the problem is hopeless.
The only place that you can truly take your burdens and know that they are dealt with is to God. This is what prayer was intended to be, a place where your troubles could be left and you could be sanctified and cleansed. As you talk to God and pour your heart out to Him, He cleans you, He washes you from all the pain and you will feel the peace of God that passes understanding as He comforts you. What the escape could not do, God can. Satan has offered you many options of escape but none of them work to achieve the one thing that you long for. David said however in Psalm 55:18, “He hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me: for there were many with me.”
Peace, that is what we are all searching for, that is what those trapped in alcohol, drugs, cutting, pornography, promiscuity and fantasy are looking for. None of these things bring peace, only the close presence of God’s Spirit can do that, the rest are only faulty escapes that become dams of emotional pain in your life.