If You Are Self-Harming, Here’s What You Need to Know …

To those who are self-harming, here's what you need to know.

To the ones who are self-harming … I know you are exhausted. I know you are confused and scared and that you want this to stop. I also know that you have courage, strength and a depth of feeling that is beautifully rich and honest – and that it sometimes brings you pain.

As confusing and as painful as the thought of hurting yourself might be, when it feels as though there is no option, it is understandable that the confusing, unthinkable things become an option. It will be that way for any of us. 

Most people who self-harm keep it a secret. Secrets put a wall between people – between feeling seen, understood, loved and validated. They isolate. They have a way of breathing life into shame, guilt, confusion or loneliness that might already be causing breakage. Whether self-harm is a secret or not, here are some things you need to know.

To the ones who self-harm.

  1. You are not alone.

    The loneliness of it all feels as though it could break you some days, but you are not alone. The people who love you want to understand, but they need your help for that. Let them in. We all have battles that we need an army to help us fight.

  2. Shhh. Let you speak.

    Your experience has given you wisdom, compassion, and a view of the world that nobody else has. Your voice is powerful. You are a healer, a fighter, and a survivor. 

  3. You are the proof that you can heal.

    Your scars are evidence of your healing. If your body can heal, your mind can too.

  4. You are NOT the problem. 

    When you hurt yourself, this is not a sign that something about you is lacking, but that there is something important that the world has not been able to give you. The world can be cruel, harsh and lonely sometimes, but it is also kind, beautiful and compassionate. It might not have given you enough of what you need, but what you need is there. Fight for it. And if you are too exhausted from fighting for so long, let someone else take up the fight beside you. Whether it’s a parent, friend, partner, sister, brother, counsellor – there will be someone. You deserve this.

  5. There will be moments, minutes, days when you fall, and that’s okay.

    There are going to be steps forward and steps backward. It’s how healing is meant to be. Falling is part of the healing, it’s not the end of it. With every fall you rise stronger, wiser, braver and more capable.  

  6. Don’t give up on you.

    Somewhere in you is the part of you that knows there is a happier version of you and your life waiting for you. Find it. It’s the part of you that has the strength to fight to get you through this. 

  7. Your body is strong. Hurting, but strong.

    Your body has been with been with you through everything. Through the hopelessness, the grief, the confusion of it all. Through the firsts, the finals, the breakdowns and the breakthroughs. With best friends, no friends, fun times and pain. First days, last days and all the days in between. The loves and the losses. Your body has pulled you through and held you up. It’s healed and hurt and kept you alive. It’s helped you reach out and reach in. But it misses you.

  8. You have a good reason for doing what you’re doing, but …

    Everything we do is driven by an important need. The need is always valid, even if the behaviour we choose isn’t the best way to meet the need. Whatever happens more when you self-harm (calm? relief?), or whatever goes away (numbness? negative thoughts?), is a clue to the need in you that is hungry. Whatever the need is, it’s okay. It doesn’t need to make sense to anyone else. It’s there because it’s important for it to be. The worst thing to do with a need is to keep pushing it down and taking its right to be there. Eventually, hurting yourself will stop working as a way to meet the need or distract from the need or the pain that goes with having the longing. 

  9. There is no weakness in you. None at all.

    You are brave and you are strong. You have to be to keep doing what you’re doing. To keep living life and carrying around the weight of the thoughts and feelings inside you. There is no weakness in you. Pain, sadness, grief maybe. But not weakness. None.

  10. There is strength and beauty and courage in you.  

    The people who love you know that there is strength and beauty in you. See yourself through their eyes. It’s beautiful. You are enough. You are so much more than enough. Write it down and look at it every day, every night and plenty of times in between. You will always be more than enough. You have the right to hurt and you have the right to heal. Your pain is important because it is yours. It contains your story, but it isn’t you.

  11. You are a healer.

    Your story is important. It is a story of strength, courage and survival. There is nothing more powerful than ‘me too’. Your story will heal others and it will give them what they need to move forward. There is power and love in your story that cannot be found anywhere else. 

What to do.

  1. Find an anchor.

    A message. A photo. A memory. When you feel like hurting yourself, you won’t be in the state of mind to remember that there are people who love you and who want to be there for you, as you would be there for them. You won’t remember what it feels like the day after, when your body is burning and the shower feels like it’s cutting all over again. The searing pain when you move the wrong way. The way it feels to keep this a secret. Have your anchor to remind you why you need to keep fighting for you.

  2. Get rid of your triggers.

    Self-harm is an addiction and like any addiction, anything associated with your self-harming experience will start the memories and feelings that lead to the experience of hurting yourself.  When that happens, it will have the force of an avalanche. Whenever you come into contact with anything that reminds you of the relief that came from last time, the pull to self-harm will be intensified – almost like a craving. For this reason, it’s important to get rid of anything associated with your self-harming – the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the towel you use, the tools you use, the things that help you keep it a secret, the clothes you use the day after to cover the scars, the opportunities to be on your own, anything that triggers the familiar feelings or memories.

  3. Seek out other ways to let out what’s inside you.

    Paint. Write. Bake. Dance. Move. Speak. Anything that nurtures you.

  4. Find what it is that supports you.

    Support can come in so many different ways, and it’s crucial. It can come from friends, family, people who have been there, professionals, support groups. It can also come from within. What nurtures you? What helps you feel loved and calm? Is it creating? Being still? Going for a walk? Meditating? Whatever you use to get through a struggle is important. Try to have them ready for when you need them.

  5. You only have to get through the next five minutes.

    Whatever you use to self-harm, put it out of reach, or take yourself out of reach, just for the next five minutes. There will come a time when you realise that you have made it through a week, then a month – but it all starts with the first five minutes. The biggest, most life-giving changes happen in with the smallest steps. Life happens in moments. In split decisions, in flashes of memory. A series of brave, strong, deliberate moments end on end. You only have to get through the next one. 

  6. It’s okay to say no. 

    When you have an open, generous heart, you feel intensely and you give even more. Sometimes you give more than you have, which leaves nothing left for you. Your boundaries are your power. The people who love you will understand. The ones who don’t, don’t matter.

  7. Don’t be a secret.

    You matter. You matter so much. So do your thoughts and your feelings. There are people who will understand what you are going through. If they don’t, they’ll want to. They’ll want to know what scares you, what hurts you, what confuses you and what you need. Help the people who love you to understand. They want to. They really do. But they won’t understand unless you help them by educating them and sharing your story. The people who love you will step forward, hold you in their arms and they will listen. They will want to learn everything you can teach them. Trust their capacity to cope with your truth. Your story is important. The pain you are feeling is enough to ask for help. You aren’t a burden and you aren’t broken. You have been through enough.

  8. Find the right support.

    We all need help sometimes to face the things that are breaking us. We’ve all been there. If you’re self-harming, tell someone – a parent, a friend, a counsellor – someone. Trust that they can do what you need them to. Trust that they will fight with you, beside you and behind you. And for the times there is no fight left in you, trust that while you rest your tired body and your exhausted mind, they will fight for you. None of us can do it on our own.

  9. Practice mindfulness regularly.

    Mindfulness changes the structure and function of the brain in ways that can strengthen you against anxious or negative thoughts and feelings. The thoughts that drive the feelings and behaviour that lead to self-harm are often ones of the past or the future. Mindfulness helps to train your brain to stay in the present when you need it to. Of course, there will be plenty of times when you need to think about the past or plan for the future, but it’s important to be able to keep your mind in the present when you need it to. Sometimes minds will have a mind of their own, and they’ll keep cycling through negative thoughts even if you know that those thoughts are hurting you. Mindfulness will help to give you what you need to be more directive and deliberate about the things you think about. For ways to practice mindfulness, see here, or here or try the free Smiling Mind app

  10. When you feel like you want to self-harm, do something else. 

    It sounds simple, but I know it’s not. When the compulsion to self-harm starts, it can have the force of a tidal wave – but it will end. Be ready with a list of options for things you can actively do while you ride out the wave – go for a walk or a run or call a friend – anything that is deliberate and active.

  11. Or wait for 10 minutes.

    If the compulsion to self-harm feels overwhelming, give it ten minutes. Whatever you do that is your normal response when you feel as yough you want to self-harm, wait for 10 minutes. Feelings are never permanent – even the strongest ones. They will come and they will go. The more you push them away, the harder they’ll push to stay. Feelings exist for a reason. Let them give you whatever insight they need to give you, then let them go – which they always will.

  12. The healing is in you. 

    Your story always has a next chapter. What you are going through now is part of your story, but it is not your full story. Your story will involve a chapter on healing and a chapter on happiness. But first it begins with hope. Write the words for your next chapter – the one where you start to heal. Let the words be ones of love for yourself, your struggle and your story. Those words are there. They might be faint and tiny to begin with, but they are there. Give them life and let them surprise you. Write them down and read them often. You won’t believe them at first, and that’s okay. You don’t need to. There are beautiful things waiting for permission to find you. 

And finally

Self-harm is not weak or crazy or shameful – it’s human. If you are hurting yourself, ask for help. People will surprise you in beautiful and unexpected ways. We all have parts of our story that we don’t want to tell, whether because of shame or because we don’t believe in people to hold that part of us gently. Sometimes your story will start a gentle stirring that will make people feel safe enough to tell their story, and they will, even as their voices shake and their bodies tremble. Courage gives life to courage. Give people the opportunity to prove themselves to you, because they will. We all need a hand through the messiness of life sometimes. It takes a brave, open heart to ask for it.

If you or someone you love is struggling with self-harm: For Extra Support – When Being Human Gets Tough.

[irp posts=”2375″ name=”Why do People Self-Harm? When Feeling Bad Means Feeling Better”]

9 Comments

Alze

Hi,
I’ve been self harming for just under a year now, it’s ranged from different severities and approaches. But your article definitely helped sum up how it can feel to be dealing with self harming and the compulsive feeling to self harm while trying to stop. My attempts to stop have been met with different amounts of success so far, but honestly I think it’s because I’m still trying to convince myself that self harming isn’t good for me and that I actually need to stop. Most of summer I stopped, only have a couple relapses but with the school year starting again the need to self harm has come back a lot more often as last school year when I first started self harming class and the stress of school was a huge trigger (especially this one classroom which this year I have twice a day again). So I’ve been trying to deal with the change in tempo again. Again thank you for writing this article, it’s nice to feel validated in some form for my feelings and approach around self harming since there’s also a lot of stereotypes and stigmas around self harm.

Reply
Susan

I’m 50 and it stopped and recently it started again. I feel very stupid to be an adolescent again.

Reply
April Macdalas

I’m 14 and I currently self harm.It hurts so much sometimes and I cried when I read this.Thank you so much you don’t even know how much this helped me.-April

Reply
Karen Young

April I’m so pleased this has helped you. I want you to know you are not alone, and you don’t have to go through this alone. If you haven’t told an adult you trust yet, please do. We all need support from time to time. Much love and strength to you.

Reply
Aly

Thank you for a beautiful article & excellent website. Informative advice presented thoughtfully and without judgement. This is useful to me as a parent – you write all the things I wish I had the words for, along with extra strategies & support. Thank you.

Reply
jp

How do you think people feel when the solution is turn to others? I’ve done that with all sorts of people, including professionals, and none of them cared.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Turning to others is one solution, not the only solution. If you are self-harming, there is a need in you that is hungry to be met. The need will be valid and important, but it will also take a lot of work on your part to uncover what this need is and to find a healthier way to meet it. Keep looking for a professional who can work with you on this. There is no magic solution that will heal your pain and find a healthier way to meet the need/s in you that a clamouring to be met. I wish there was. I wish there was an easy way to take away your pain. Know that the strength and courage is in you to do the work that’s needed to do this. Don’t give up. Keep fighting for you.

Reply
Grace

This is so beautiful! I engaged in self-harm regularly from when I was 14-25 years old when I finally got professional help. I’m 27 now, and I’ve certainly had a few backslides, but it’s definitely better. Thank you to speaking to those who self-harm with so much validation, compassion, and understanding. Self-harm is enshrouded in so much shame, this kind of support is so rare to see. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Reply

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Let them know …

Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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