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 …”]

10 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.

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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.

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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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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things 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. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
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

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