When Someone You Love is Self-Harming

When Someone You Love is Self-Harming

When someone you love is self-harming, it’s confusing, confronting, frightening and the feelings of helplessness can be breathtaking. You might not understand why this is happening, but you don’t have to. I wish we could give the people we love everything they need, but sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we, the world, it isn’t enough. This is scary for you and it’s scary for them.

Whatever their struggle, there are things you can do to help. You can’t stop their pain and you can’t change the feelings driving that pain, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to fix anything. You couldn’t anyway, however much you want to. The healing is theirs but your being there is so important. It’s enough – more than enough – that you are a loving, gentle support that holds things steady and makes the world a little less painful while they heal. 

If someone you love is self-harming …

  1. There is always a good reason.

    There is always a good reason the person you love is doing this, and it’s not about attention. The reasons will be different for everyone, but it’s generally driven by emotional pain. Whether it’s a need to distract from the pain, soothe the pain, distract from the need that’s driving the pain, or cut through the endless and exhausting cycling of negative thoughts – self-harm will be an attempt to meet an important need. That doesn’t mean it’s an effective way to meet the need – it’s just a way to try. Emotional pain is a faceless, nameless beast that breathes fire and confusion and shame. It can drive the strongest of us to take extraordinary steps to make it stop.

  2. Judging and criticising will always make it worse.

    People who self-harm are strong and brave and they want to get better. The worst thing you can do is judge. Self-harm is driven by emotional pain. When you judge, or criticise it makes the emotional pain worse, which will intensify the need to self-harm.

  3. They know it doesn’t make sense.

    Self-harm doesn’t make sense to them either. Self-harm is inflicting physical pain to release emotional pain. It’s not about the logic, it’s about the feeling, or trying to get rid of the painful ones. Some of our most human experiences and feelings are completely devoid of rationality and logic. But they are honest and real all the same.

  4. Be open to being educated.

    Don’t ask why. Ask what. Asking why is confusing because generally, people who self-harm don’t know why they do it. Instead, ask what happens when they self-harm. What feelings or thoughts come? What feelings or thoughts go? Be patient if it doesn’t make sense. The experience of having the conversation is as important as anything either of you can take away from it. 

  5. But if they don’t want to talk about it …

    Let them know they don’t need to explain. Silence, words, let them decide. Let them also know that when they reach out, they don’t need to know what to say. They don’t need to say anything at all. You can hold them, listen to them, watch a movie, go for a walk – no explanation needed. Finding the words can be so exhausting, especially when none of the words fit.

  6. It’s often not about one feeling.

    Pain is a shape-shifter and it often moves beyond words. There might not be one dominant feeling that drives the decision to self-harm. Fear, hopelessness, sadness, shame, anger – one of them, all of them, none of them. It can be driven by too many feelings pushing to come out. Or it can be nothing – a deadness, a numbness, hollow space and an emptiness that feels unbearable.

  7. No. They can’t remember how it felt last time.

    When feelings feel big, the ‘thinking, rational part of the brain is shut down. In that moment, logic and rationality won’t exist. The brain switches to survival mode and in that moment, self-harm feels like the only way to get through.

  8. They don’t do it to hurt you. Even though it does.

    Know that this isn’t about you. It’s about what’s happening for them. They don’t do it to punish you or to get your attention. The vast majority of people who self-harm keep it a secret. If they’ve told you, it’s because they trust you. They trust you to love them, fight for them and stick with them through it. Know how important you are.

  9. It’s something they do, not who they are.

    Don’t call them a ‘cutter’, or a ‘self-harmer’. It’s something they do, it’s not who they are. It’s a coping strategy. We all have them. None of us are defined by them.

  10. They don’t want to die.

    Self-harming behaviour rarely comes with thoughts of suicide. People who self-harm don’t want to die. They just want to stop the pain to stop.

  11. Don’t try to change them. They wish they could change too.

    They wish so much for things to be different, that the longing can feel unbearable. There is nothing you can say that will give them more of a need to change than what they are saying to themselves. Be the safe, secure person they can come to when it feels as though the rest of the world doesn’t understand. It’s paradoxical, but the more we fight who we are (or who somene else is), the more shame, hurt and anger is stirred. Let them invest their energy in healing, not in justifying, or having to be someone different front of you. Understand, accept and let them know that who they are is okay with you. Let them know that you love them because of who they are, not despite it.

  12. Ask what they need.

    Do they need you to stay? Go? Listen? Talk? Find a counsellor? They might not know what they need and that’s okay, but let them know you’re ready to hear it when they figure it out.

And finally …

The compulsion to inflict deliberate physical pain on the self is confusing for everyone – for the people who do it and for the people who love them. People who self-harm don’t want to be hurting themselves and they don’t want to be hurting you. They just want the pain to stop. We all have our ways of dealing with pain but sometimes, the pain can become too much to be put back to small enough. If someone you love is self-harming, know that you don’t have to fix anything. The healing is theirs and you can’t do it for them – as much as you would if you could. What you can do is be there. You might feel scared, frustrated and so confused at times and that’s okay. Self-harm is a frightening, frustrating, confusing thing. What’s important is that you’re there beside them as the gentle, loving, non-judgemental presence that we all need from time to time.

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”]

[irp posts=”2373″ name=”To the Ones Who Are Self-Harming, Here’s What You Need to Know …”]

9 Comments

lucie

the person i love and care about the most, is self harming and i’m very close with his parents, he doesn’t want too tell anyone which i understand and will respect, but what if it gets too much and something even worse happens and i could’ve helped but he doesn’t want too talk about it and leave it, i can’t just leave it because i don’t want him to hurt himself even worse. i’m struggling with what to do. but this article has helped me understand without speaking to him about. thankyou

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brittany

Absolutely beautifully written. I have read so much on this concept as a middle school teacher and this is, by far, the most powerful and poetically worded way of sharing how to help. I know that sounds silly, but reading “advice” that sounds medical blends together and makes you feel like you’ve done everything, now what? THIS article felt like I am in the mind of my student and FEELING what they need from me. Some of the lines I am planning on modifying and speaking back to them as strength and empathy. Some of the lines spoke to my own raw soul, “They trust you to love them and fight for them”. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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Mary

Excellent article. My oldest used to self harm. She has been clean for 3 years. It was a horrific period when she was cutting. At one point, she had over 200 cuts and had to be hospitalized. It was heartbreaking. Thank you for this article.

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Barbara Couturier

I disagree. I am a picker. I will pick at a scab or pimple knowing I will look worse, knowing it will bleed and scar. That this poor skin of mine is all I have got.
I know there is no control. Several times a day that same sore is going to hurt. I am not pretty never have been why do I make things worse ?

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Kaitlin

Hi someone I love very much is hurting themselves with drugs. Everyday and I’ve tried everything to understand why and maybe get him to stop. But he doesn’t want to. He believes they’re helping him. I want to believe that’s what he thinks anyways. But I know it’s not. He’s changed since he started taking them and it worries me. We are almost to the point of splitting over it because I have my own depression and anxiety to combat and my own issues with self harm and mutilation so I am worried my own predisposition could worsen his depression. I really need advice from someone about this. Thank you.

Reply
Debbie

Is skin picking (cuticles) or hair pulling the same thing as self harm? Have a dear friend just starting these habits and would love to know how to help her.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Debbie this is a great question. No, skin picking (dermatillomania) and hair pulling (trichotillomania) are not the same as self-harm. Self-harm is generally driven by emotional pain. Skin picking and hair pulling are generally driven by anxiety. Here is some information about skin picking http://www.skinpick.com/dermatillomania.

Here is some information about hair pulling http://www.arcvic.org.au/anxiety-disorders/trichotillomania.

The symptoms of skin picking and hair pulling will often intensify with the anxiety, so managing anxiety is important. Here is a link to the anxiety articles with information on how to do that https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. Exercise and meditation are the big ones that can make a difference. They can change the structure and function of the brain in ways that strengthen it against anxiety. There is so much research around this and it’s continuing to grow.

I hope this helps. Your friend is really lucky to have you in her corner.

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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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