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.

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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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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.

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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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Let them know …

Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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