When Spanking Leads to Self-Harm
“Look! I got an 88 on my math test,” 8-year-old me exclaimed loudly to one of my parents. “It was the highest grade in the class!” Being bad at all things arithmetic, it was such a proud moment for me. I struggled and fought for that 88 and not only was it a good score, but it was the highest in the class.
For once, I was good enough.
“Why wasn’t it a 100?” they said back. The joy and pride left my eyes. I didn’t have an answer. I thought what I had done was good, but it wasn’t enough. My best wasn’t enough. This individual time, this parent wasn’t angry at my lack of perfection, but oftentimes they were.
I don’t have a good relationship with anger.
The threat of being spanked was loudly loomed over me often when “misbehaving” as a child. To my memory, I was never doing anything innately horrible. I was curious — trying to figure out the world in the ways a child does. I never had bad intentions. I wasn’t malicious or a liar and the times I did lie was a learned survival trait. A young Black girl who was lively, curious, smart and creative learned how to make herself smaller to avoid harm before she even knew why.
While the threat wasn’t always followed through, the intention still caused an incredible amount of harm. The person who caused the harm never did it with bad intention. They were parenting in the way they knew whilst fearful that I wouldn’t be able to survive in “the real world” when I was younger unless I was disciplined. They made it evident that pain and fear could co-exist with love, something that changed me for years to come.
Being perfect became the new goal for me. Perfect grades and perfect behavior or else I’d be backed into a literal corner experiencing what I would later learn to be panic attacks due to fearing for my safety. I learned that safety comes from perfection. I thought, “If I’m not good enough, I need to be punished.”
I was separated from the person who unknowingly instilled this belief in me after I turned 12 years old, but the trauma would stay for over a decade more. Now separated and in a different state and environment, there was no one to physically and verbally assault me for my lack of perfection. I was in an environment and household that only sought to nurture me and my hobbies and dreams, whatever they may be. In a healthy family dynamic that ate dinner together every night and asked me about my dreams and goals, my imperfections still haunted me and with those imperfections came needed and warranted punishment.
For every test I performed poorly on, every role I was denied and every photograph where the composition was just slightly off, I would have a meltdown. The anger that was directed at me as a child from someone else was now directed at me from myself. I wouldn’t learn unless I was punished, so I started punishing myself.
It started “small.” I didn’t jump to cutting. Little things and habits that could be undetected. Between said anxiety and undiagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) I would typically perform poorly, not being able to have focused on the work at hand through my anxiety attacks and wandering thoughts. When I would receive the test back, the same dread from my younger childhood would rise in me, early signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Teachers never understood why I viscerally reacted and performed so poorly when I was so bright and determined. They pointed out how I had mastered other arts and sports that I wasn’t naturally talented at, so why can’t I do the same here or there? The disappointment I felt from teachers and educators who, to this day, love and support me so much was overbearing. I was letting down the people who love me. Just like when I was younger, I was trying my best but my best wasn’t good enough.
My best was never good enough.
This cyclical thought haunted me and the self-harm rituals grew and expanded, and as I grew I was careful with hiding it because I knew what would happen if people found out.
It’s been seven years since the last time I felt the urge to self-harm. I do believe I’m “recovered” at this stage of life. Like many of the childhood traumas I experienced, I’m in a beautiful place when I can currently say I feel as if I’ve overcome a large portion of said traumas and what I haven’t overcome yet, I’m actively working on. Something that sticks out to me about my journey and my struggle with self-harm and sub-sequential mental health issues, is how it all started with physical and verbal abuse as a child. Harm and a lack of safety became a normalized part of my life, to the point that even when I was put into a healthier overall dynamic I had to re-create the harm cycles that I was used to.
Spanking exists in every racial community, however within the Black community it is so prevalent and the debate exists over whether spanking is or isn’t OK and whether it is or isn’t abuse.
As Black bodies, we are so used to living with pain regardless of what county we live in. Anti-Blackness is as universal as needing water and air to live and that’s horrible. My question is why in a world where we are already going to experience so much pain and collective trauma, do we feel the need to enforce it on ourselves? We use the Bible as a means of justification. We say that it’s for our own good and to protect us from doing the wrong things in life when in reality all it does it teach us to never feel safe even in the small moments where we can. It teaches young children that pain and harm is acceptable and even prevalent in “healthy” loving dynamics. The worst part, which makes sense in the context of humor as a coping mechanism but it still horrible, is that we as a community laugh about being beat. We make joke videos and memes where we all talk about our reactions after having a whooping. Taking away the humor, does this not point to a collective wound in our community that needs to be addressed?
My parent tried preparing me for the hardships of life. They tried making me strong through loud words, threats and more. As a young queer Black girl, I didn’t need to be prepared for a world that hated me. I needed to feel safe, loved and protected.
I needed to know what safe accountability and healthy love felt like — not behaviors that aren’t OK being passed off as such, thus conditioning me to think that I deserved harm from others, including myself.
In my story, there is a direct correlation between abuse, being spanked and my self-harm story. One wouldn’t exist without the other, or so I’d like to think.
Corporal punishment, spanking and the ideologies that go with it need to be challenged and stopped for the sake of the Black children that exist and the Black babies that aren’t even born yet. I don’t want my future children learning that pain and abuse is love.
Image provided by contributor.