Discovering that a loved one has purposely harmed themselves in one form or another may stir up a wide range of emotions: fear and worry, confusion, frustration, anger, and even blame. A person may find a million questions running across their mind. But possibly the most important question is “how do I help?” No two people are the same and each person may need support in different ways.
For a person who has never self-injured or felt the need to self-injure, it can be difficult to fathom how and why this happens. You may be quick to make judgments and assumptions. This is natural but not helpful to your loved one. Try your hardest to keep any judgments to yourself. The difference between imagining how much distress this person must be experiencing and wondering why they aren’t finding a better way to cope is the difference between judgment and empathy. Certainly, empathy is the route to take.
If your reaction is frustration, you may feel the urge to accuse the person who is self-harming of trying to get attention. This may or may not be the case. Many people feel extreme shame over their self-injury behaviors and desperately try to keep it a secret. Consider how much it would hurt to disclose a shameful secret only to be accused of trying to get attention. When seeking help, that kind of rejection would only lead you to withdraw from potential sources of support. Even if a person is injuring themselves to get attention, that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the situation. They are still deserving of help, support, and assistance. Remember, labeling self-harm as the “wrong way” to ask for help is a judgment! Put those judgments aside for now. With the work of a counselor, your loved one may be able to explore more healthy ways of having their needs met.
Ask what they need
We’re all individuals and we all need support and help in different ways. It isn’t up to you to determine how to give help. But if you are trying to help, it’s up to you to ask how. Allow the person who is self-injuring to tell you what they need, which may range from just listening to helping them come up with a plan to stop. You may not be able to meet every need–that’s okay. Do what you can once they’ve told you how to help. There may be times that they aren’t sure how you can help or how to help themselves. Things like encouragement, empathy, expressing concern and warmth are a good start.
Don’t make it all about the self-harm
You had a relationship with this person before you found out about the self-injury. Please, don’t forget that. As a logical person, safety is going to be at the forefront of your mind. You may find yourself frequently asking questions or checking in about self-injury to make sure that your loved one is safe. That’s understandable, but don’t turn your loved one into self-harm. No one wants to be identified by one thing that they do. See the whole person without ignoring your concerns. If you want to check on them, remember to ask them to tell you something good that happened to them today. Discuss the shared interests that you both still have. Maintaining your relationship is going to be important for both of you and self-injury isn’t something that needs to disrupt it.
Encourage them to speak to a counselor
Your loved one might not be ready to speak to a professional counselor about self-harm. They may be currently speaking to therapist but have not yet disclosed this important piece. Remind them that this is an option that has been effective in helping people reduce self-injurious behavior, and a counselor can help in a variety of ways. You may not know what to do to help, or you may not be available to help all the time. Encourage your loved one to get as much help and support as needed to get through this trying time. Self-injury isn’t a life sentence. Your goal is to help them recognize that there is hope to feeling better—which is something they definitely need to hear.
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.