The purpose of this post is two-fold; firstly to help someone who is suffering and currently harming themselves and secondly to help loved ones around them understand what is going on and how to support them whilst still looking after themselves.
This is a big post that may be difficult for some people to read.
Why do people self-harm?
Self-harm is something we are all aware of, that is, we know it happens but some people may not truly understand WHY people do it. Self-harm is a physical response to emotional and psychological pain.
Self-harm, like suicide, is the symptom to an illness and one that needs to be addressed and dealt with carefully and correctly. It can encompass itself in a whole range of behaviours.
It can be truly frustrating and painful for the loved ones who have to sit and watch someone they care about hurt themselves and gain nothing positive from it.
It is important to understand that if someone is self-harming that they are in distress and they are not dealing with their overwhelming emotions in a rational manner; people who are suffering with a mental illness can sometimes have irrational moments, this is part of their illness – it can cloud your judgement.
People who have or do self-harm tend to say they do it for one or many of these reasons:
- Punish themselves (this is because when people are mentally ill they tend to have an overwhelming critical voice within them and they feel as though they deserve to be hurt)
- Express their distress
- Relieve unbearable tension
If you’re reading this and you have done this to yourself in the past, you’ll be nodding your head in agreement. If you’re reading this, have never done it, know people that have and you yourself have been hurt by it. You’ll be shaking your head wondering ‘I don’t do this when I am in distress’ and so on.
It is very important that if you have known of someone doing this to themselves that you understand one thing and one thing only, something I will continue to repeat, this is a symptom of an illness. And it needs to be helped in the same principle that you would take some painkillers when you have a headache.
What can someone who is self-harming do to stop themselves?
The key is to take note of when you have done it in the past and think to yourself ‘what is my trigger?’.
Then once you understand your trigger, you can learn to deal with it better.
You trigger might be a social situation, worrying about how people are looking at you. It might be you were upset with yourself for something you did and so you had to punish yourself. It may be you’ve had a very dark day and you need to release the pain from within to an external source.
But if you have done this to yourself before you realise that it doesn’t help in the long term, it only makes things worse. It has a temporary release but can have long-term negative effects; on your work, your relationships and importantly your relationship with yourself.
If you are hurting yourself, then you may also be very critical of yourself within. It is important to understand that if you are hurting yourself then you’ll end up in a cycle thinking ‘I’ve done it again, I’m so worthless’ and this will cause your critical voice to continue and therefore the self-harming to potentially spiral into something more dangerous. Reframe these thoughts, if you have self-harmed and you’re trying not to say to yourself ‘I thought I was doing what needed to be done to take care of myself, but I was wrong. This is ok I can do better next time’.
There are many things you can do in order to stop or prevent yourself from self-harming:
- There may be some people in your life who you trust deeply and who are aware of your issues, give them a call, if you can, and talk to them about how you’re feeling. Speak about your emotions to someone objective from the situation. If they are not available as they’re at work or asleep there are hotlines designed to help you. Please call them. They don’t know you. But they want to help.
- Notice what it is that is bringing you down: for example your thought patterns? Once you notice what and when you start doing it, you can work to change it.
- Understand the physical effects: heart racing, extreme emotions of sadness or anger, loss of sensation, repetitive thoughts – understanding these physical effects means you can practice mindfulness (i.e. focusing on the colour of the sky or the sound of music) as a way to distract and calm your thoughts and prevent self-harm.
- Use a red pen or draw something where you would normally self-harm.
- Hit pillows or cushions or have a good scream into one.
- Rub ice-cubes along where you might usually harm yourself.
This can be difficult to achieve when you’re in the heat of the moment. It can be hard to step back and think ‘ok I’m feeling this way and I need to do this to stop it’ it takes time and compassion but it can be done. Keep a note on yourself or a pen, something to aid you to ensure that if you start feeling like you want to self-harm, you have something to remind you that you do not have to.
I am close to someone who is self-harming, what do I do?
Firstly it is important that you understand that how you react to someone who self-harms may impact on how they open up to you or self-harm in the future.
As someone who has self-harmed I can honestly say that yes self-harm and suicide is selfish. When we are doing these things to ourselves we aren’t truly stopping and thinking about how it will affect the ones we love around us. If we were to put ourselves in your shoes, yes we’d equally be upset.
But it is important that, as difficult as it is, you understand that when we are in this state of mind, when we are acting in this way, our minds are so clouded by our own emotions and so overwhelmed by knowing how to deal with them. We do things that aren’t helpful in a way to try and help ourselves, but we do make everything worse.
Our thoughts and actions are spiralling and like I said this is just a symptom of a mental illness. It has nothing to do with anyone else, except for us. We are not dealing with our emotions correctly. So we take it out on ourselves. As hard as it may be, do not blame yourself for this.
This is something some people go through and we can get out to the other side. It just take compassion, time and understanding.
If you are close to someone who is self-harming you may think to yourself ‘why can’t I stop them? Is it my fault?’ as difficult as it is you cannot stop someone from self-harming, the only person who can, is themselves. You can show them why they shouldn’t but only they can choose not to.
Sometimes they may do it and feel extreme regret afterwards, but you should not punish or shout at them, as much as you may want to because your feelings are hurt, try and stop and understand that this is a symptom of an illness. People shouldn’t yell at you for being sick when you have stomach flu, and the same applies here. The only reason why it is different is because emotions, feelings and relationships are on the line.
It must be very difficult to see someone you truly care about hurt themselves. However, there are a few negative things you may do, as an initial response, that may cause things to become worse for them:
- Shouting at them for their actions,; you may do this as you are hurting due to their actions, but if you do step back, think about how they must be feeling if they are using self-harm as a coping mechanism and then calmly say that it is upsetting for you too and talk about your feelings. It will help both of you understand one another.
- You cannot try and force change. It will put great stress on both of you.
- Do not ignore injuries or overly focus on them, just let them know that you’re there for them should they feel low.
- Try not to label their self-harm as ‘attention seeking’. This has negative connotations, sometimes it is a persons ”cry for help” but simply saying ‘you’re an attention seeker’ is only going to cause them to feel worse about themselves and cause you to feel more upset or anger.
As close as you are to this person that is self-harming, you are not responsible, you are not to blame. This person is ill and dealing with their overwhelming emotions incorrectly. Always remind yourself that:
”This is a symptom of a mental illness that can be helped, I can guide this person but I cannot ‘fix’ them.”
Also, this doesn’t have to be forever. People get better, like with anything else. They too can be happy and healthy again.