If you or a loved one has ever had a history of self-harm, you understand how painful, distressing, and confusing it is to cope with self-injury. Often the person inflicting harm feels hopeless about stopping the behavior. Loved ones feel helpless in assisting the person they love in overcoming self-injury. But there is hope—there is always hope.
Here’s what you can do to start the healing process.
1. Recognize what you are doing is self-harm
By definition, self-harm is any act that purposefully causes physical damage to the body. Some of the more common acts of self-injury include cutting, burning, scratching, picking, or piercing skin. Hitting yourself and drinking or eating caustic substances are also common forms of harm.
Some acts of self-harm are not readily identified by the individual or society as harmful behaviors. Heavy drinking and dangerous and reckless sexual behaviors are sometimes labeled “fun” or a part of “experimenting” and “growing up.” Tattoos, piercings, and even hair removal are painful yet purposeful processes; while these acts are accepted by many cultures, if a person seeks body modification to manage his or her mood and emotion, it may still be an instance of self-harm.
Do you recognize these behaviors in yourself or someone you care for?
2. Interrupt the cycle with words of kindness.
Self-injury happens in cycles. Something happens like a heated argument with a loved one. You become so emotionally distressed that your only method of coping is to cause damage to your body. Cutting, scratching, or burning yourself provides temporary relief, but once that fleeting relief has passed, you feel guilt, shame, and self-loathing. In turn, you feel like you deserve to be cut or harmed and you injure yourself again—it’s the only way to get any relief.
If this cycle sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. This is a pattern that many who self-injure find themselves trapped in. If this pattern is not familiar to you, know that not everyone fits into the same mold. Self-injury is complex and complicated.
In either situation you must learn say kind words to yourself. What would you say to a person you truly care for, someone you would never hurt? Say those words of empathy, love, care and understanding to yourself.
3. Find reasons to stop, and keep them close.
If you’ve been harming yourself over a period of time, there is something appealing about the act. Now that doesn’t mean that you want the action to continue, but it does mean that it offers something to you that you don’t believe you can get otherwise. Whatever reward you reap from self-injury makes it difficult for you stop.
When you feel the urge to self-harm, you will need as much motivation as possible to stop. I encourage you to make a list of every reason you can think of to resist. It can be anything from not wanting the scars to not wanting to model this behavior for your children. Keep copies of your list near you and in the places where you tend to harm yourself. Look back to that list whenever you feel the urge to hurt yourself.
4. Engage your support system
During trying times, we need to engage with our support system as much as possible. This is true in any instance. While I strongly recommend that anyone who is injuring himself or herself speak to a professional counselor, there is no reason why your support needs to be limited to just a therapist. You have several options including support groups (in person and online), crisis counselors and hotlines, family, and friends.
When you do engage your support system, be clear about what your needs are and how you can best be supported. Let them know when you just need a listening ear and empathy or when you need someone to help actively find solutions. If you have supporters who are willing, make plans to call or meet with them whenever you have the urge to injure yourself.
5. Consider what happens before, during, and after you engage in self-harm behaviors.
Think about the first time you injured yourself. What triggered you to injure yourself? Write down what was happening at the time and how were you feeling. Make a note of any thoughts, feelings, or sensations from the actual moments when you were injuring yourself (if you can remember them). Don’t neglect the details either. Do you harm yourself on a particular part of your body, and does that specific body part have any significance? Are the tools you use to harm yourself important? What happens afterward?
Compare your first experience with the last two times. There may be a noticeable pattern when you take time to really think about what happens before, during, and after you harm yourself. Recognizing the pattern may help you to understand what triggers your self-injury and what purpose it serves.
6. Try to understand why you self-harm
Developing insight is an important step toward mental well-being in regard to any problem. Think of it this way, you can’t heal a physical wound without knowing what kind of wound it is. Some are burns that require healing balms and others may be deep gashes that require stitches to heal. The same goes for healing the emotional wounds that cause you to injure yourself. Think about why you self-injure. For attention? Probably not. Are you attempting suicide when you self-harm? Not likely. Self-harm is often used to regulate moods. A person may cut themselves when they feel intense anger. Another person may cut themselves as a way of physically expressing how much he or she hurts emotionally. Some people harm themselves as a way of feeling any sensation or stimulation when deep depression leaves them feeling numb. Understanding why you self-injure is an important step in stopping.
If you are having difficulty gaining insight into your self-injury, a professional counselor will likely be able to help you. There is never in shame in asking for help.
7. Find alternatives that are less damaging.
If you have been able to gain some insight into why you harm yourself, you may be able to come up with alternatives that are less damaging and relieve the tension that motivates you to self-harm. If you’ve realized that you self-injure in order to feel pain, try holding ice cubes in your hands or snapping a rubber band on your wrist. If you injure out of anger, rip paper or use red lipstick to mark the area where you would cause injury. If you need to relieve tension, try screaming into or hitting a pillow, stomping on soda cans, or engaging in aerobic exercise. You may find in resisting the urge to self-injure by occupying yourself with something else, the desire will fade and eventually go away.
These alternatives work for some and not others, so consider discussing these methods with a counselor before trying them so that you may find one that is safe and helpful for you.
Self-injury can leave lasting scars, both physical and emotional. Know that there is hope and that there are ways of healing from this difficult time in your life.
Online Support Group
“Helping a Family Member or Friend Who Cuts”
“Cutting & Self-Harm”
The Stone Foundation is a community of counseling professionals who are committed to helping you live your best life. If we can assist you in healing from self-harm, please contact us at 410.296.2004 or visit www.thestonefoundation.com. We are here for you and want you to know that there is always hope.
Please know that this article deals with a very serious matter and is intended for general, educational purposes only. This article, and others like it, should not and are not meant to take the place of professional counseling services or medical care.
Lauren Greenberg, MS, LGPC is a graduate of Loyola’s Counseling Practitioner Program. For three years, Lauren provided hotline crisis intervention to residents of Baltimore City. She also has experience providing counseling to students at a local college for issues including grief and loss, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, anxiety, and trauma. Her professional interests and areas of study include positive psychology, promoting social and emotional competence, and women’s issues.