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”]

8 Comments

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.

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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!

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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