I tend to get along really well with people who have had a troubled past and have emerged out of it by their own doing. I guess it’s because that’s my exact story, so I attract and mesh well with people who have a similar one. Because of that, I know a lot of people with a history of self harm, and today I want to talk about what that is. If self harm, self mutilation, or cutting are triggers for you, please be advised.
What is self harm?
Self harm is a term used to describe when someone purposefully causes physical harm to themselves, usually without the end goal of committing suicide. It can be referred to as self harm, self mutilation, self injury, deliberate self harm, bodily harm, etc. In general, it all refers to the same thing.
How does self harm manifest?
The most common method of self harm is cutting, which is the act of cutting one’s skin with a sharp object such as a knife, razor blade, or scissors. There are many other forms of self harm, though, including burning, scratching, rubbing (rug-burn), hitting or punching, banging body parts into other objects, pulling your hair out (also referred to as Trichotillomania), preventing wounds from healing/picking scabs, swallowing foreign objects or poisonous substances, and more.
Why would someone self harm?
Those who self harm are usually people experiencing depression, anxiety, or some other mental illness (like Borderline Personality Disorder) and do so an attempt to cope with the feelings and symptoms they are experiencing.
There are many different modes of thought for individual’s reasoning for harming themselves. Some people hurt so strongly inside that they want to have something physical to represent it. Some people feel numb and hurt themselves as a reminder that they can still feel something, even if it’s just physical pain. Others feel they’re terrible people and deserve to be punished.
As I mentioned, most people engaging in self harm are not doing so with suicidal goals. They might actually be self harming so they don’t kill themselves. Self harm is basically just a very unhealthy coping mechanism.
Are people who self harm seeking attention?
The short answer is no. Most people who self harm do so in secret and hide it on parts of their body that are easily covered by clothing. They are coping with their symptoms and feelings the only way they know how and are not self harming so someone will pay attention and worry about them.
Self harm might seem more “popular” these days, but I think a lot of that is just due to the internet and communicative technology. Before the digital age, there was no way for us to know about self mutilation unless we experienced it ourselves or saw someone going through it. There have been more TV shows and other media sources addressing the issue, though, and it unfortunately does make it more likely for someone to try it as a coping mechanism if they didn’t realize it existed as an option beforehand.
That being said, there are definitely people out there who will go through any means of getting attention. Some people hurt themselves so others will ask them what’s wrong or to generally cause drama and concern, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need help. If you are hurting yourself as a coping mechanism or because you so strongly desire attention you’re wiling to break your own skin, you should still seek medical help. Regardless of your motive, if you’re engaging in self mutilation, something hurts inside you.
Is causing damage to your skin the only type of self harm?
Self harm generally refers to the methods I’ve listed above, however the reality is it goes way farther than that. Self harm can also refer to destructive behavior such as binge drinking, abusing drugs, driving recklessly (or while under the influence), having unsafe sex or sex with partners you wouldn’t otherwise want to be with, and putting yourself in generally dangerous situations.
What should you do if your friend is engaging in self harm?
If someone you know is hurting themselves, the first thing to do is approach the situation from a place of empathy and understanding. Judging them for what they’re doing, accusing them of seeking attention, or placing guilt or blame is not going to get you anywhere helpful.
Talk to them
Approach them and ask them how they’re feeling in a private situation. Tell them you love them and are worried about them. Listen to what they say without judgment, even if you don’t understand where they’re coming from. Don’t be afraid to bring the subject up. You talking about it isn’t going to make them hurt themselves more. Studies have actually shown that most people engaging in self harm wish someone they love would bring the subject up because they don’t want to do it themselves.
Feel free to ask open ended questions about how hurting themselves makes them feel, why they started, etc. It can be a good way for them to open up about what’s going on. It’s likely they haven’t said any of these thoughts out loud before now.
Provide resources and options
Offer to hold onto any tools they might have used in the past to hurt themselves and if there’s anything else you can do to help prevent them from harming themselves in the future. Make sure they know they can call you at any point to talk.
Tell them you would like to help in any way you can and provide some easy options for resources and assistance. Maybe have a list of local therapists who take their insurance available – this could include places like the Transcend Recovery Community that specialize in recovery after addiction, for example – as well as the following resources:
1-800-273-TALK — A 24-hour hotline if you’re in crisis and need to talk about self harm or another related emergency
1-800-334-HELP — Another 24-hour hotline operated by the Self Injury Foundation
1-800-DONT-CUT — Information on self harm
SelfInjury.com — A website for tips on coping, finding a therapist, and S.A.F.E. treatment programs
To Write Love On Her Arms — A website dedicated to those suffering from depression, addiction, self injury, and suicide
You can also point them in the direction of coping skills specifically related to self harm. There are lots of techniques available for someone to try when they feel the urge to self harm such as snapping a rubber band on their wrist, tightly squeeze an ice cube in their hand, drawing on their skin with red marker, or eating a hot pepper.
Provide praise for any positive steps they make in this journey. Tell them “good job!” if they go see a therapist, get past an urge, utilize an alternative technique, etc.
Keep hanging out with them like you normally would. Making them feel like they still have your ongoing support and friendship is important. You don’t want them to feel like a failure or an outcast.
Do not make promises such as “I won’t tell anyone under any circumstances”. You can promise not to share the information with your friends, social circles, strangers, etc. but you need to be careful that you don’t betray your friend’s trust if drastic times call for you to get help from a third party.
Take care of yourself, too
Keep in mind that bringing up the subject is not going to make things worse, but at the same time you don’t have the power to make them stop harming themselves. You can provide as much support and resources as you can, but ultimately the choice is theirs. It is definitely possible that your friend could become angry at you for bringing it up and yell or stop talking to you. This does not mean you are a bad person or a failure. You just want the best for your friend.
What are the steps someone should take to stop self harming?
Besides acknowledging there’s a legitimate problem, my first recommendation is to seek out a therapist. Finding a therapist with specific training and education in self mutilation is preferable. Explore your thoughts and feelings, not just surrounding self harm, and take your mental health professional’s advice for further counsel (for example, they might suggest you see a psychiatrist for a diagnosis or medication treatment for an underlying mental illness).
Practicing alternative techniques as outlined above is something that can be very helpful for overcoming the urge, especially in the beginning. Another helpful step is to hand over any tools you’ve been using to a friend you trust so the tangible tool is no longer a trigger or readily accessible. Creating a support system so you have the ability to reach out and call someone when you’re feeling the urge is vital as well.
Another helpful tool is to create a log of some kind. It doesn’t need to be a laminated chart you hang on the wall with columns and gold stars (unless you’re into that), but just something you might track your progress with. Keep tally marks of every day you go without hurting yourself, keep track of the days you feel the urge, etc. Having documentation can help you recognize your patterns and see physical progress you can reward yourself for.
How long does it take for someone to recover from self harming?
Everyone’s journey with self harm is different. Some people can go for years without receiving treatment. Some people are able to quit hurting themselves by addressing the route of the problem (which may be an underlying mental illness or low self esteem), and others need to be checked into an inpatient mental health treatment program with more supervision and assistance.
Relapses are very common with recovery from self harm. It’s very unlikely that someone will quit a habit and go cold turkey forever. Relapses are unfortunate, but expected. They do not equal failure, though, they represent a non-linear journey to a healthy life. With something like self harm, I’d say it would take about two years of not engaging in the behavior before you will completely be rid of the urge to hurt yourself.
I was fifteen and extremely depressed. I was dealing with symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, Panic Disorder, Trichotillomania, and severely low levels of self esteem. I wasn’t medicated or receiving treatment of any kind, I just felt like I was going crazy. I asked my mother if I could have some of her old rings and wore them on all four of my fingers so I could push the stones into my skin until they bled. Cutting in the traditional sense wasn’t something that entered my mind innately, though.
Everyone thought I was a very happy person. I’ve always exuded happiness, even when I’ve been full of despair. No one really knew what was going on in my head. I met a girl who immediately felt comfortable with me and told me about her experience that summer where she was raped by a stranger. She had developed PTSD as a result and would go into dissociated experiences where she would cut herself terribly and find out about it later.
She had shared her wounds with me and it floated around in my mind constantly, like a blinking light that wouldn’t go away. I thought about how good that would feel to do. I loved how it felt when I would push the rings into my fingers, so the feeling of really cutting myself had to be even better, right? I went months on edge, wanting to do it but trying my best to refrain until one day I gave in.
It was the slipperiest of slopes. My wounds got larger and more frequent. I cut on my upper legs and hips so they were easily covered in clothing. I had scissors in my nightstand that I started using every single night. Around this time I started seeing a therapist for the first time and I confessed that I hurt myself to her. She lied and said she would keep it to herself and promptly called my parents. They went ballistic. They yelled at me and hid all sharp objects in the house, and I felt like an insane person.
I started and ended two long-term relationships before I started the process of trying to stop. My boyfriends were very frustrated with me and for good reason, but I never really found a reason to stop until I met someone I would date for six years. He built up my self esteem, told me I had no reason to feel all these things, and really supported me throughout the process of stopping.
When I decided to stop cutting myself, it took years of trying and relapsing to get better. And then even a couple years after I hadn’t hurt myself at all, I would still get the urge. Something bad happened and I’d want to cut. It was an impulse, a second-nature ritual. After a couple years, I was able to experience something negative and not immediately imagine hurting myself, though. Recovery is possible, and it is possible for you.
You are the only one of you. The world would be different without you here, every experience you have had has affected something else. You are important, you are valuable. You don’t deserve pain.
Want even more tips, tricks, and support with your journey of self love? Treat yourself to my e-course, Self Love: The Key To Happiness.