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 …”]

11 Comments

jajehe

my boyfriend has always had depression, he was institutionalized for a brief period before w meet, he’s always has small depressive episodes but never anything physical against himself, but the other day he just relapsed. I’ve never dealt with this before, I don’t know who to talk to, he won’t really talk to me, I don’t want to force him to either. But the reasons stem from deep trauma that I don’t even know the half of, he says he’s okay and hasn’t mentioned it since he texted me. I’m worried.

Reply
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

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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 ?

Reply
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
Sebas

It’s okay to be concerned, the best thing you can do for them, is just remind them of the person they were before the substances. It’s okay to not be okay and it’s important to share the concerns in a way that makes all parties involved feel like the choice is theirs. Reminding them that they are not alone is one of the most important things you can do.

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.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

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.♥️
.
.
.
#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.♥️
.
.
#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This