Self Harm: How To Help Someone Who Self Harms
Your friend tells you something very personal. They confide in you that they’re depressed and that they self-harm sometimes when they’re feeling overwhelmed. They’ve been doing this for years, and you’re the only person who knows. What do you do?
Supporting a friend through something like this can be scary. Witted Roots has your back: here’s everything you need to know about self-harm and how to help someone going through it.
The first step to being able to support a friend who’s self-harming is to understand what it is and why people do it.
What Is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is when people hurt themselves to deal with the overwhelming and painful feelings that they’re facing. People harm themselves in many different ways. The most well-known way is by cutting themselves with a sharp object, but people can also hurt themselves by burning, hitting, and scratching.
The problem is that although self-harm does provide a temporary release, it can lead to a vicious cycle. Especially when people start self-harming during adolescence, their brains come to expect the relief that comes from self-harming. They might not ever learn how else to cope with painful feelings other than by harming themselves. On top of that, self-harming usually leads to feelings of guilt and shame, which strengthens the cycle even further.
Once people become used to self-harming, it can take a long time — often years — for them to stop. And even if the self-harming behavior isn’t intentionally meant to be suicidal, accidents happen and things can get dangerous quickly.
Why Do People Self Harm?
It’s important to note that when we say “self-harm”, we’re talking about non-suicidal self-injury. There’s a common misconception that cutting and other types of self-harm are nothing more than failed suicide attempts, but that isn’t true. Although people who self-harm might also experience suicidal thoughts, the self-harming behaviors are a way for them to cope with their lives, not to end them.
So if people aren’t hurting themselves because they’re trying to kill themselves, why do they self-harm?
Some reasons that people often give for why they self-harm are:
- To feel something; to stop feeling numb or dissociated
- To express feelings that they aren’t able to express in words
- To express suicidal feelings without actually attempting suicide
- To punish themselves
- To feel like they’re in control
- Because they don’t know how else to cope or express themselves
- To release built-up emotional tension
- For the rush of euphoria that immediately follows the cut/burn/scratch
- As a distraction when they’re feeling overwhelmed with negative emotions
At the end of the day, there are many different reasons why people self-harm. If your friend is self-harming, it’s important to understand their reasons for doing it.
6 Tips for Helping Someone Who Self Harms?
If a friend has recently confided in you about their self-harm behaviors, you might feel lost about what to do and how to support them. Here are six tips to start with, so you can have an idea about what to do and what not to do.
Help Them Find Mental Health Resources
First things first: no matter how good of a friend you are, it still may not be enough to help your friend stop hurting themselves. Self-harm is a complex behavior, and it’s likely that your friend needs additional mental health support or resources to recover.
Don’t assume all of the responsibility of helping your friend if they’re self-harming. Sit with them and look for mental health resources in your community together. Therapy is always a good idea (for everyone). To Write Love On Her Arms is another fantastic online resource.
If you haven’t ever experienced the urge to self-harm yourself, then you have no business judging someone else for what they’re going through. If your first instinct, when you find out that your friend is self-harming, is to ask, “Why would anybody ever do that to themselves?”, then take a step back and learn about the psychology of self-harming before trying to have a conversation with your friend.
It’s okay, though, to ask questions in a sincere, non-judgmental way. If it’s truly important to you to deeply understand what your friend is feeling and what brought them to this point, ask them. “Why would you do this to yourself?”, though, comes off as judgmental no matter how good your intentions are. Try phrasing it this way instead: “Tell me more about how you feel and the reasons why you’re hurting yourself. I want to understand.”
Take Self-Harm Seriously
There have always been people who self-harm, but now with social media and technology, these types of behaviors have become more well-known to the public. Self-harming is so prevalent in the media these days that some people brush it off as just a “trend” or “attention-seeking behavior”.
We’re going to nip this kind of thinking in the bud: self-harming isn’t purely an attention-seeking behavior. Even if it were, your friend would be crying out for attention for a reason: because she needs it. If your friend confides in you about their self-harming behaviors, take it seriously. Never minimize it or brush it off.
Talk About it And Validate The Pain
One of the most harmful things that you can do if you know or suspect that your friend self-harms is to avoid talking about it because you don’t know what to say. It’s understandable to feel a little awkward about it. It can be really hard to approach someone about their immense suffering. It might be true that you really don’t know what to say, and that’s okay.
However, it’s important that you do talk about it, and make sure your friend knows that it’s okay to talk about it, too. You don’t need to come up with any answers or advice: simply validating their pain is enough. Sometimes, a simple: “Your feelings are valid, and I’m here for you,” is the best thing you can say.
Don’t Make Or Demand Promises
This one is tricky. You care about your friend, and of course, it’s tempting when you first find out that they’re harming themselves, to make them promise you that they’ll never do it again. It’s hard, but try to avoid doing this. This probably isn’t a promise they can keep until they get help. At the end of the day, stopping is a decision they need to make for themselves, not for you.
Your friend might also want you to make promises to them — like promising them that you’ll never tell anyone else about their self-harming behaviors, for example. Avoid making these kinds of promises to them, too. There might come a time when you need to tell someone else about what’s going on with your friend if their behaviors become dangerous. If your friend tries to force you to make those kinds of promises, you can assure them that you won’t gossip about them or do anything to intentionally betray them, but that their safety is your first priority.
Take Care Of Yourself
This sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. It’s crucial that you take care of yourself while you’re supporting your friend through this. The old warning about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others is valuable.
Make sure you engage in proper self-care to recharge. Supporting a loved one through something like this often means that you’re carrying a lot of emotional weight on your shoulders. Remember that it’s okay to have boundaries. Taking care of yourself will give you the strength and energy to be an even better friend.
Witted Roots Has Your Back
At the end of the day, the decision to stop self-harming is up to your friend and your friend alone. But if you’re reading this article, that probably means that you’re a wonderful support for them, and want to do everything you can to help them through this. We applaud that, and as always, we’re rooting for you.
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