'Self-Injury, (body) shame and agency'

UCHI Fellowship Alycia L. LoBianco spoke about a chapter of her dissertation in the fourth floor conference room of the Homer Babbidge Library. (Nicholas Hampton/The Daily Campus)

UCHI Fellowship Alycia L. LoBianco spoke about a chapter of her dissertation in the fourth floor conference room of the Homer Babbidge Library. (Nicholas Hampton/The Daily Campus)

In her presentation, Alycia Laguardia-LoBianco gave an overview of her dissertation “Action Guidance in Complicated Cases of Suffering,” in which she discusses the context of oppression, shame and burden agency regarding self-harm.

Laguardia-LoBianco, a PhD candidate in philosophy and dissertation fellow in the University of Connecticut Humanity Institute, gave her presentation on Wednesday, Oct. 25 in the UCHI Conference Room at the Homer Babbidge Library to a group of both distinguished professors in the humanities field as well as students.

“I was lucky to take a philosophy course with Joel Kupperman here at UConn. During our discussion of Buddhism, which takes as its starting point the elimination of suffering, I was stuck on the question, why should we want to eliminate suffering?” Laguardia-LoBianco said of her inspirations for the dissertation. “From there, I started thinking about the potential value of suffering, arguing that there are virtues that come from suffering that make it worthwhile.

She began her discussion of self-harm by first giving a trigger, asking the audience to give some input on what they already knew about self-harm. After various responses, Laguardia-LoBianco discussed the stereotypes regarding self-injury.

“Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, they’re not true for the most part,” Laguardia-LoBianco said. “It’s not just white women that are doing this (self-harm), they only make up a small part of the demographic.”

Laguardia-LoBianco talked about the importance of breaking down these stereotypes and misconceptions in order to destigmatize and demystify self-injury.

Laguardia-LoBianco’s focus was on what she refers to as deviant self-harm, which is defined as direct injury or harm to body tissue that is not socially acceptable and is typically a product of mental disorder or anguish. Specifically, in that category of self-harm, she is looking at superficial, or moderate self-injury, such as cutting or burning, in which there is a low degree of tissue damage and occurs episodically.

She explored the reasons why this happens in her work as well, referencing the causes that self-injurers have given, including testing their pain threshold and expressing to others the emotional turmoil they might be in nonverbally.

“I don’t think this is a phenomenon with a unified explanation,” Laguardia-LoBianco said.

She explained that self-harm functions as a coping mechanism for many and counterintuitively reduces pain. Two of the reasons she cited for self-injury are hyperarousal, or uncontrollably feeling too much of an emotion, and an absence of affect, or numbness to feeling anything.

“Self-injury reestablishes control from an out of control state,” Laguardia-LoBianco said.

She included multiple first-person accounts from sufferers, as well as experts in the field to validate her research.

Throughout her presentation, Laguardia-LoBianco posed questions she had during her writing and followed them up with answers and her own research. She made the academic material very attainable for the audience, providing anecdotes from daily life and speaking openly with the room.

Laguardia-LoBianco went on to explain why self-harm works as a coping mechanism, citing Schopenhauer: “The thing about pain is that it forces you to focus on it.”

According to Laguardia-LoBianco, this can be in the physical or emotional sense and for those that self-harm, they often substitute the uncontrollable emotional pain for a physical, controllable one.

She explained the shame experienced by those that self-harm, be it from people that don’t do it and don’t understand it (outgroup) or people that also go through it (ingroup). According to Laguardia-LoBianco, self-injurers go on to internalize that shame, judgment and feelings of inadequacy from their peers. These feelings of inferiority often prevent people who self-harm from seeking medical attention.

“Isolation is encouraged. That’s what shame does. It keeps us from connecting with anyone else,” Laguardia-LoBianco said.

She opened up a discussion about behaviors that are functionally similar to self-harming, but viewed as socially acceptable, be it traditions, body art or other rituals. Even activities such as smoking, drinking, drug use, eating patterns or physical risk-taking that are used to provide stress relief share commonalities with self-harm. Laguardia-LoBianco made the point that, while these still involve self-injury and are often performed for a similar function, they are not associated with the same amount of shame as self-harm.

“I’m interested in messy, real-life problems that have been overlooked by philosophical analysis yet which can benefit from it,” Laguardia-LoBianco said. “Real suffering is complicated... It matters to our lives, to who we are and who we care about,” she said in her biography on the Humanities Institute website.

She concluded her discussion with a question and answer segment, which brought up the idea of changing society’s view on the self-harm community and destigmatizing the behavior.

“I think it’s important to talk about taboo topics that are worth talking about to demystify and destigmatize,” Laguardia-Lobianco said. “We need to promote empathy where it might be lacking.”

Julia Mancini is the associate life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.mancini@uconn.edu.