Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
I’ve been struggling with self-harm off-and-on for 16 years, and many people have tried to help me. They meant well, but often they did more harm than good. I thought I would list responses that are helpful and unhelpful.
1. Don’t panic.
When you panic my anxiety skyrockets and I want to run from you and hide this problem. I’m personally not suicidal. I’m just hurting.
2. Encourage me to talk to a counselor about what’s going on.
The self-harm is a sign there are some complex emotional things going on, and a professional counselor can help me work through these. I am currently seeing a counselor, but I’ve been in counseling off and on for years. If I struggling with self-harm, check in to make sure I am talking to a counselor or other professional about it.
3. See if I am physically OK or need medical attention.
Try to ask me in a non-invasive way, out of care, concern and respect for my privacy. If I do need help, maybe you could take me to the doctor or ER and be my advocate if medical professionals are not respectful.
4. Don’t lecture me on how bad this is.
I know it is risky. When you judge me and lecture me I feel worse about myself, so I feel more tempted to injure myself. When you lecture me about how self-injury is wrong, I feel ashamed and terrible and may start hiding it as the problem gets worse.
5. Don’t threaten me.
Don’t say things like, “If you keep injuring yourself, then….” Or, “If you injure yourself one more time, then…” I’ve had people say threatening things like this to me. It puts an enormous amount of pressure on me and the stress makes my temptation worse.
1. Listen without judgment.
I know self-injury doesn’t make sense, but this is a real addiction I struggle with. I usually want to injure myself due to overwhelming emotions and anxiety. Sometimes my emotions are so intense I am completely overwhelmed and don’t know what to do. Be that person I can call or talk to when my emotions and anxiety are out of control. Just listen. Listening is often the best thing.
This has to be done in a careful way with an agreement between me and the friend. For example, I’ll make an agreement with someone that each time I injure myself, I have to let them know. Then we might talk about what happened if I feel up to it. It helps to get this out in the open. Just no threatening or lectures if I mess up. Accountability only works if I am completely on board.
3. Positive affirmations.
When I am struggling with self-injury, I am feeling really low about myself. These are the times I feel like I’m not worth anything, that I’m “crazy,” that I deserve to be hurt. Tell me specific things about myself that are positive. Remind me I am valuable, and that I don’t deserve self-injury. If I have already injured myself, tell me I am still worth something, and that tomorrow is a new day.
4. Give me ideas of distractions.
In the moment, when dealing with thoughts of self-injury, I sometimes forget all my coping skills. There are lists online of distractions or alternatives to self-injury. Remind me of some of those ideas. One is to hold an ice cube in your hand until it melts.
5. Change the topic.
Listen and let me talk it out, but if my thoughts start getting really circular and obsessive, gently try changing the topic. Sometimes I keep obsessing over these thoughts, and it’s not healthy. Maybe you can find something else to get my mind off those obsessive thoughts. Sometimes I have dealt with thoughts about self-harm just by distracting myself — by turning on the TV and becoming absorbed in a movie or joking about something with a friend.
6. Volunteer to come sit with me or take me out somewhere.
It’s often not good for me to be alone when I’m in this state, especially if my thoughts are obsessive. Volunteer to come over and sit with me or suggest somewhere we can go. Maybe I can share all my emotions with you, and cry it out, or we can find something to do that gets my mind off self-harm. If we are together, I’m safe from myself. It helps to know I’m not alone.
7. Ask me how you can help.
Often I will think of something in the moment that would help.
8. Tell me that you don’t think any worse of me now that you know.
After I confess to someone that I struggle with self-harm, I panic my friend will judge me and think I’m “crazy.” When a friend tells me, “I still see you the same, I don’t think any less of you,” that gives me an incredible amount of comfort. Self-injury is my deepest secret. My struggle with self-harm brings me embarrassment and shame. When a friend tells me, “I still love you. I don’t think any less of you. I still think you’re a great person. I still want you in my life.” When a friend speaks to me that way, I am often moved to tears. For a moment I see myself through their kind eyes, and I think maybe I don’t have to harm myself after all.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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Thinkstock photo via kevinhillillustration