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5 Things My Self-Harm Urges Are Really Trying to Tell Me

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Article updated August 19, 2019.

I’ve been dealing with self-injury on and off since I was 16 years old. I had a decade of good recovery when I couldn’t imagine having the urge to hurt myself. Then, life happened, and I found myself again battling daily urges to cut. I recently had a bit of a personal breakthrough when I realized this desire that seems so scary and shameful might actually be my mind and body messaging real truths to me that I could benefit from listening to.

Here is a list I’ve compiled of what my self-harm urges are trying to tell me:

1. I’m in pain.

I’m in some kind of mental or emotional pain, and I don’t know how to deal with it. I want to express it or to memorialize how much it hurts, its intensity and how it feels like it will never pass. I will never not want its ugly remnants etched into my skin. When this is the message I am hearing, I know I can sit with it and let it pass. This feeling is both the hardest and easiest thing.

2. I’m feeling too much.

I’m having a big feeling, and I don’t know what to do with it. The very existence of big feelings overwhelms me on a guttural level, even happiness and joy. Big feelings like shame, fear, frustration and anger can temporarily overwhelm my coping mechanisms (not to mention my cognition) and send screaming urges to cut through my mind and body. This is a message I also know will pass and honoring the feelings as they are is the key to dissipating their power.

3. Something is wrong.

Maybe I’m stuck in a power imbalance somewhere in my life. Maybe my medications are off. Maybe I’m self-medicating, and my mental health is declining as a result. Maybe life is really hard, and I’m just sitting here living it so things inevitably go awry on the regular.

This message is an important one that can get lost amongst the loudness of the big feelings-based urges. It’s quieter, yet incredibly persistent. It may involve some detective work. Once the culprit is identified, it’s likely a more difficult “fix” than sitting with a feeling and waiting it out. When this is what my urges are trying to tell me, it’s imperative for me to ground the self-harm desire in the reality that hurting myself won’t make anything better. In fact, it will make me feel ashamed, abandoned by myself and as if I’ve failed. This is not helpful.

4. It’s all too much.

Overwhelmed. It’s a state of mind that gets me every time. This is different than those big feelings. This is when the bills aren’t getting paid, the childcare fell through, I can’t miss another day of work, my gas tank is on empty and all my clothes make me feel bad. This is when nothing is going my way or there’s a big blow that’s the proverbial last straw. This is an insidious feeling I cannot handle my life and I’ve failed before I’ve begun. I know cutting doesn’t make this situation any better, but it does make me feel like I have some control. I have to remember in these situations that there are other options for feeling empowered in my life.

5. I need a release.

Maybe I just need a release of some sort. Cutting might be one way to get that. Exercise, writing, connecting with someone, taking a bath or engaging in a spiritual practice are other ways to release pent-up energy that needs to go somewhere.

The most important thing for me to keep in perspective when the urge to cut comes is: I can want to self-harm and not actually act on it. The wanting is enough, and I can sit with that longing and see what’s lurking underneath. There are vital messages there, if only I can find it in myself to receive them.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

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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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 20, 2017
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