“We would like you to write a blog post about self-harm.”
Allow me to be completely honest here: when I heard this at first, my eyes widened, and my heart started beating a little faster. Self-harm is a heavy and delicate subject, one that has lingered in the shadows of societal taboos for decades and has just recently started to become part of the conversation. I was not sure how to start and afraid of falling short somehow. I scoured the internet, looking for statistics, definitions, and self-help articles.
One phrase, in particular, stood out among many others: “Self-harm is more common than you think.” Self-harm is more common than you think. As I repeated these words to myself, my eyes fell on the scars below my wrists. These semi-faded, discolored remnants of past struggles were a testament to this sentence; self-harm is more common than you think. This post is an open letter to anyone who has ever thought of, felt like, or engaged in self-harm. These are all the words I wish I had been told when I was self-harming, at a time when mental health awareness was not as prevalent as it is today.
If you have ever considered self-harming yourself or still think about it, you are in the right place. If you have ever engaged in self-harm, please know that you are not alone, and you never have to feel alone in this again. If you know someone who struggles with this, I want to thank you for taking the time to learn and educate yourself about it. Suppose you have no particular feelings about the subject or ended up on this page by coincidence. In that case, I thank you for reading these lines and hope you can use the information you will find to your benefit. If you are contemplating self-harm, I want you to know that it is okay to have these kinds of thoughts. Many people sometimes turn to this alternative when they feel like they are running out of options.
Self-harm is not a sign of weakness; it is not an indicator of moral deficiency. It is not pathetic; it is not a cry for attention, nor is it shameful. It does not define you as a person. You are not “unstable,” “crazy,” “insane,” “toxic,” or “dramatic.” Most importantly, you are not alone, and it is possible to live without self-harm. There are ways to help yourself now and in the long run. There are resources and communities you can reach out to. As a small but important aside, the accurate appellation (in this context) for what is colloquially referred to as ‘self-harm’ is non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). This self-harming behavior or NSSI speaks to the act of harming oneself without the intention or desire of suicide.
Self-harm clichés: dispelling the misperceptions
Before we get into this, it is essential to define and understand self-harm as a behavior, to deal with it better in the future. Contrary to popular belief, this behavior is not the prerogative of young people, which brings us to the myth-busting part of this blog.
Myth 1: Self-harm is something only girls do.
It is often assumed that girls are more likely than boys to self-harm; however, no research has corroborated this. Boys and girls may engage in different self-harming behaviors or have various reasons for hurting themselves, but this does not make it any less severe.Anyone can be affected by self-harm, but some people are more likely to self-harm than others because of particular factors or experiences affecting their lives. This includes the experience of a mental health disorder, sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, or facing life pressures of any sort.
Myth 2: Self-harm is a teenage thing.
Self-harm is by no means a problem that only affects youth—people of all ages and backgrounds engage in self-harming behavior; there is no one typical persona. Self-harming behavior takes many forms, which are more or less subtle and easy to spot.
Myth 3: Self-harm is attention-seeking.
No. Now let’s all repeat this together: self-harm is not attention-seeking. One of the most prevalent and abrasive stereotypes is that self-harm is about seeking attention. This is not the case. Many people who self-harm do not talk about what they are going through and find it very difficult to reach out for help.If you self-harm as a way of bringing attention to yourself, please remember that there is nothing wrong with needing to be noticed. You deserve to have your distress acknowledged and taken seriously. You deserve support.
Myth 4: People who self-harm must enjoy it somehow.
It is commonly believed that those who self-harm find pleasure in the pain or risk associated with the practice of their behavior. There is no evidence to support this; harmful behavior often leads to more pain and/or shame in the long run.
Myth 5: People who self-harm must be suicidal.
Self-harm can be seen as a suicide attempt by those who don’t understand it. Most people who engage in self-harm are engaging in non-suicidal self-injury, which is a way to cope with overwhelming and distressing feelings and life circumstances. However, this does not take away from the severity of self-harming behavior, and should be addressed with a high level of care.
So, what is self-harm about, then?
Having looked at what self-harm isn’t, it is now time to examine and understand what it truly is about for many of us.Self-harm or NSSI is when you hurt yourself in an attempt to deal with distressing feelings, painful memories, or seemingly inescapable situations and life experiences, without the intention of ending one’s life. Among the typical reasons behind self-harm, many have described it as a way to:
- Express something that feels otherwise impossible to put into words
- Channel emotional pain into physical pain; turn something invisible into something visible/material
- Escape traumatic memories or seemingly unsolvable problems
- Create a sense of being in control; have something in life that can be relied on
- As a form of self-punishment
- An attempt to feel something
- Have others see their pain and distress and find help (note this is not the same as attention-seeking behavior, but instead may be a cry for help)
The reasons are unclear for some people, and can be harder to make sense of. Sometimes you might not know why you hurt yourself or why you might be considering it. If you don’t understand the reasons for your self-harm, you are not alone, and you can still get help. Understand that whatever shape it may take, any self-harm practice carries risk. Healthier and safer alternatives exist to feel better.
How can one deal with self-harm?
Below are steps you can take to help choose alternative behaviors over time. Please remember that even if you cannot resist the urge to self-harm, it remains helpful to reflect on it. This can allow you to understand better and face the situation if you experience it again.
1. Become familiar with your self-harm pattern.
Understanding your patterns of self-harm will help you know where your urges arise from and, later on, recognize these urges when they are coming.
2. Identify your triggers.
A trigger can be a situation, a physical sensation, a specific thought or feeling, a person, or a group of people. Once you have identified the trigger, practice asking yourself questions like:
- Did I have any particular thoughts?
- Did this trigger remind me of something in particular?
- What is my general context right now?
Sometimes taking the time to notice and answer these questions will give you the time you need to mentally step away from the situation, deescalate the pressure, and resist the urge you may be having to self-harm.
3. Notice the urge to engage in self-harming behavior.
Urges can translate into overpowering thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations. Recognizing your urges and how they manifest goes a long way towards reducing or stopping self-harm, as it helps you spot them more quickly each time they appear.
4. Distract yourself.
The following are suggestions that people have found helpful in different situations; feel free to come up with your list and try it out!If you are experiencing:
- Anger: try exercising or engaging in any physical outlet.
- Sadness or fear: soothe yourself as you would a child; try a breathing relaxation technique.
- Powerlessness: take charge of your environment by decluttering, or of your body by clenching, then relaxing all your muscles (this is formally known as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or PMR; you can also check out How to do Progressive Muscle Relaxation).
- Numbness: hold ice cubes, have an icy shower, stand in the wind, etc. Or engage in a grounding exercise (place your feet firmly on the ground, try the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique)
- Shame: reassure yourself as you would a loved one; your behavior does not mean you are ‘bad.’
- Self-hatred and wanting to punish yourself: get creative about it, put it into words, dance, song, or art.
I want to stop self-harming; how can I find more support?
While helpful for many people, the techniques listed above can appear too simplistic or challenging to apply to others. If this is the case for you, below is more information on how to help yourself in the long run.
1. Accept your feelings.
This is your daily reminder that it is okay to feel the way you do and incredibly brave to start facing your feelings once more. It can feel scary to consider experiencing painful emotions again, so it is essential to create a safe environment (this can include eliminating triggering objects or people) pace yourself, and use tools and resources to facilitate the process.
2. Build your self-esteem.
Learning to value yourself is a game-changer and positively shapes your experiences in life. There are several ways to change your self-perception in the long run, including practicing talking to yourself with more kindness and compassion, learning about boundaries and your needs, and reciting empowering affirmations.
3. Understand your self-harm in more detail.
Before you learn to let go of self-harm, it can be beneficial to understand your relationship to self-harm in the first place. The deeper your understanding of why you hurt yourself and the perceived benefit of self-harming behavior, the easier it will be for you to implement practical changes and put alternatives in place.
4. Look after yourself.
When you self-harm, whether you mean to or not, you are sending a hostile and powerful unconscious message to yourself - one that implies that it is okay to mistreat your body. Once again, it is essential to be kind to yourself and learn, step by step, to counteract this message with an overall opposing and positive one.
5. Reach out for help.
Asking for help can feel downright impossible, especially if you worry about being judged. Remind yourself that we all need support at different times, that there is nothing wrong with it, and that it is a sign of strength. When you are ready to reach out, turn to a trusted person, a friend, family member, counselor, support group, or mental healthcare professional. Remember that you don’t have to say anything you are not ready to share yet. There are plenty of options for outside support, and it is not one-size-fits-all. You might need to try many different things before finding what works for you.
To close, there is no quick fix for self-harm. Making and committing to changes will require time and effort. Remind yourself that you have chosen the road of recovery and that healing is a process. Praise yourself for this choice. Be patient, and remember that it is common to make some progress and then slip into old and familiar behaviors again. This does not mean you’re not healing.
If you relapse, please try to be kind to yourself and be reminded that you are not failing; you are on a healing journey that involves ups and downs. Falling and getting back up is part of the decision to recover; you are paving the way for your continued recovery by renewing your commitment to healing.