10 Things People Who Self-Harm Tell Us About Recovery
Non-suicidal self-injury is a behavior that confuses a lot of people — why would someone deliberate hurt themselves? It might be difficult for some people to understand, but self-harm is a behavior that is a coping strategy for a lot of people. That said, it is also a behavior that can come with a lot of stigma, associated negative outcomes, and can have a significant impact on a person’s life. For these reasons and others, people we talk to often express a desire for recovery from self-harm.
In our work involving people with lived experience of self-harm, several key points about recovery have emerged. First, recovery can mean different things to different people at different times. In line with this, people may describe their experience in different ways. For many, the term “recovery,” will work well, but for others a different term might work better. There is also no one way to do recovery. Much like no two people’s experiences of self-harm are the same, this also applies to people’s recovery journeys. Further, it is important to recognize that recovery is easier said than done. Recovery takes time, patience, and effort. It doesn’t happen overnight. If it were that easy, we probably wouldn’t be writing this article! Recovery is also a process. It is not straightforward. There are bound to be ups and downs. Finally, recovery is so much more than just stopping self-harm.
With this in mind, we now draw attention to 10 things that people with lived experience of self-harm highlight when it comes to recovery. Since no two recovery journeys are identical, you may find that some of these are more or less relevant to you. That’s to be expected. Again, there is no one way to do recovery.
1. Setbacks happen.
An important thing to recognize is that recovery doesn’t just happen. There are bound to be setbacks along the way, and this does not signify failure. This may be particularly true when times get tough, and self-harm has become a way to cope. Each step forward is to be encouraged — two steps forward, one step back is still moving forward in the recovery process.
2. Urges and thoughts will continue.
There may be a desire or expectation for self-harm thoughts and urges to just go away completely. Although understandable, most often thoughts and urges will continue. This is perhaps especially the case when self-harm has been something people have used for quite some time. What we know, however, is that as people work through recovery in their own way these thoughts and urges become much less frequent and intense.
3. Rewards matter.
There will be times when someone feels the need to self-harm but is able to resist that urge. This is to be celebrated! People can learn from that experience: what was different this time? Was a new strategy tried that could be used again when the urge to self-harm is strong? Rewarding even small steps in the recovery process helps maintain motivation even if thoughts or urges to self-harm persist.
4. People who self-harm have strengths.
People with lived experience of self-harm have inherent strengths, even when they may not believe this to be true. Each person’s set of strengths is unique. Strengths might be a close relationship with a family member or friend, a talent or hobby (e.g., art, music), or even a trait (e.g., determination, curiosity). These strengths warrant recognition. For far too long, much of the emphasis has been placed on what people lack when working on recovery (e.g., people lack coping skills, so they need to learn to cope better). Yes, people may benefit from learning different ways to cope or to express hard feelings. This does not mean they are weak though. People who self-harm are strong and deserving of understanding and compassion.
5. Finding alternatives is hard and takes practice.
Coping with life is hard, and we all struggle at times to adjust when life throws us a curveball. Finding different ways to cope when trying to stop self-harming takes practice, it won’t happen all at once. Also — not all coping strategies work for all people, or at all times. We need to learn what works best in which situations. People can try practicing different coping strategies in times that are less stressful (e.g., losing the car keys), and then try them out in more intense situations. Most of all, don’t give up. Consider the “rule of three”: try something three times in three different situations before discarding it as a coping strategy.
6. People self-harm for a reason.
Self-harm does not occur in a vacuum. The belief that people can just “get over” or stop self-harm is simply not fair, nor is it true. Self-harm happens for a reason and recovery involves addressing the many factors that underlie why people self-harm. This includes but is certainly not limited to: difficulty coping with painful emotions, past trauma, being bullied, and experiencing mental illness (e.g., major depression, eating disorders).
7. Scarring is an important consideration for a lot of people.
For many people, scarring from self-harm plays a key role in recovery. It is important to bear in mind that scarring can mean different things for different people. For some people, it can be a source of difficulty. People may have trouble accepting their scars — especially at first. Over time, however, many people can experience a shift in how they see their scars. Many people come to find meaning in their scars, even seeing them as a symbol of strength.
8. Telling someone you self-harm is hard.
Telling someone else about self-harm can be a key step in seeking support. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma attached to self-harm. This means it can take a lot of courage to confide in someone else. People with lived experience tell us that they are sometimes afraid to disclose their self-harm because they expect negative reactions from other people; they fear being called weak, attention seeking, or “crazy.” If someone tells you they self-harm, be sure to react with compassion and without judgment, recognizing that this may have been a difficult thing for them to do.
9. People who self-harm are resilient.
For too long people who self-harm have been thought to be unable to cope with intense emotions, traumatic experiences, or stressful situations. But people who self-harm are doing just that — every single day. Recognizing the strengths of individuals who self-harm, and harnessing this resilience, is a person-centered way of fostering recovery that, over time, will aid in developing new coping strategies.
10. People who self-harm can find self-acceptance and meaning in recovery.
Although recovery is often difficult and hardly ever straightforward, one thing that has become clear when hearing from people with lived experience is that the journey often leads to finding self-acceptance and compassion. Many people have indicated that through their recovery journey and all it involved, they found meaning, hope, and resilience to face life’s challenges.
Self-harm recovery isn’t straightforward, and it isn’t easy. It is not simply about stopping self-harming; there is so much more to consider. If you are in the process of recovery — be kind to yourself, and celebrate even tiny steps forward. If you are supporting someone else — be patient and compassionate. The stories we hear from people with lived experience are powerful reminders that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that recovery is possible.
This article was written with Penny Hasking.
For more information, including a more in-depth discussion of recovery, please see the following book which was informed by people with lived experience of self-harm: “Understanding Self-Injury A Person-Centered Approach.”
The Self-injury Outreach & Support website offers recovery stories and resources, including guides that can be shared with people in support roles (e.g., family, friends, partners, health professionals).
Getty image by LUMEZIA