The Myth of Self-Inflicted Suffering: A Quick Conversation With Myself

by Matt B. on November 19, 2014

For me, the hardest thing about OCD is the sense that I’m doing this to myself – that it’s my fault that I just spent five hours thinking about whether I subtly (and almost painlessly) fractured my pinky finger. That all of that nausea, despair, and loneliness was self-inflicted.

Wasn’t it?

Well, any sophisticated psychology would ask, What’s this ‘self’ we’re talking about?

Sure, sure. There’s no self, no soul, no solid entity at our core. So maybe when we say ‘self-inflicted,’ we’re really just saying that there’s no Other, no one else to blame.

Right – but once we acknowledge that fluidity and interdependence are basic features of our existence, this whole self/other distinction starts to break down.

Not entirely. Even if there’s no ‘thing’ inside me, there is a difference between what’s happening here and what’s happening elsewhere. My thoughts and feelings are still distinct from yours. In more Buddhist terms: karma operates locally. And so does consciousness.

So when we say that suffering is ‘self-inflicted,’ all we really mean is that it arises from within my thoughts and feelings. Which leads to the question – how could suffering be anything other than self-inflicted?

It couldn’t. Without thoughts and feelings – without consciousness – there would be no suffering.

So why am I so irked by this phrase?

Because it suggests that there is someone to blame, and that someone is me (or a part of me). But once we see that we aren’t coherent, self-controlling entities – that the mind itself is a braid made up of different patterns of thought, feeling, and perception – then there isn’t anyone there to inflict the suffering, and there isn’t anyone to inflict it on. Stuff’s just happening.

Sounds kind of fatalistic.

At a deep level, yes. (No free will, etc.) But most of the time, we don’t live our lives at that level, and there’s no need to. We can just look at what’s happening in our minds and ask whether it’s worth listening to.

As you said, though, our minds aren’t one thing – they’re composed of many parts. So who’s doing the looking and listening? When we ‘look at what’s happening in our minds,’ all we really mean is that one part is responding to another. Sometimes these parts respond with care and love, but other times – as with OCD – they can be nasty and cruel.

Yes! The parts of my mind that OCD has commandeered are profoundly nasty – tyrants and bullies bent on crushing the other, more vulnerable parts.

Interesting – you’re implying that OCD itself is only part of your mind. Often, though, you talk about your mind as if it were one big OCD-infested junkyard – you’ve used phrases like “broken brain” in your essays. But of course, if your mind were nothing but OCD, then you wouldn’t be vulnerable. (You wouldn’t have any self-awareness, either, but perhaps you’d be pain-free.) It’s only because OCD attacks the tender parts of your mind that you feel a contrast – and that you suffer.

Right again! And maybe that’s how it makes sense to talk about a ‘self’ – as the collection of all of these parts. OCD is a virus, forever trying to pervade and infect every other aspect of my being. But regardless of whether it’s got the upper hand on any given day, it’s still only part of me, and never the whole. Which means that it probably doesn’t make sense to identify with it as much as I have.

That might be another reason to reject the phrase ‘self-inflicted’ – because it can imply that what’s happening is coming from all of me (or the ‘truest’ or ‘deepest’ parts). But it isn’t – it’s only coming from the part that’s most powerful right now. There are other parts, too, and they each need to be heard.




{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet Singer November 20, 2014 at 3:02 pm

I enjoyed following that conversation with yourself, Matt. I think realizing that OCD is just one of many parts of you is huge, and as you say, it often garners way too much attention considering it can be so “nasty and cruel.” It’s a good argument for giving all those great parts of you more attention………they deserve it :)!

Matt Bieber November 25, 2014 at 12:12 am

Amen! Thanks so much, Janet.

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