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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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