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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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