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5 Things You Shouldn't Do or Say to Someone Who Self-Harms

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

I have struggled with self-harm since I was a kid. Most of us are aware of the tantrums kids put up when they are upset. They hit others, drop to the floor, scream and cry. When I felt overwhelmed by certain emotions, in particular, anger or sadness, I would use my hands to hit my head. I had trouble identifying and regulating my emotions. My primary school counselor told me I had anger management challenges when I shared with her how I found myself unable to control my anger and would hit myself or the wall.

Little did I know that these behaviors were early signs and symptoms to what would become a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and dissociative/personality disorder traits given to me in my 20s.

When the word self-harm is mentioned, most people think about cutting, a very common and increasingly concerning mode of coping for persons in distress. Fortunately, I never turned to cutting until I was 23. I was actively suicidal from the stress of battling my illness while also trying to excel in my degree. Soon, that one cut led to many and I found myself with a new problem.

I struggle with self-harm still today; however, I have come a long way with the help of medications and therapy to reduce the frequency of self-harm and in replacing self-harm with healthier coping methods, such as exercise. I expose my scars to the world when I do not wear long sleeves. It took me some time to embrace my scars rather than feel shameful of them. However, responses from others who notice my scars have discouraged me and led me to feel shame once again. Ironically, this does not deter me from self-harm; instead, it increases the urge because I develop self-hate and feel I deserve to be punished and scarred for my behavior.

Through my sharing, I hope to send a message of love to peers who are challenged with self-harm, whatever form it may be. I also want to raise awareness among members of the public on what were some unhelpful words and behaviors people made toward me, more so out of a lack of awareness rather than a lack of concern. I have learnt to forgive them, and at times also make the effort to voice out my discomfort over their words and actions.

Here are five things people have said or done to me that was completely unhelpful, and very likely also to be unhelpful to anyone else challenged with self-harm.

1. Touching me without permission.

I get it, you notice the scars and you get worried. Without thinking, you grab my arm and go, “What is this? Did you cut yourself?” Leaving the question for later, the very act of grabbing my arm to look at my scars without permission is a big no. I am hypersensitive to my scars and it takes much courage for me even today to deliberately lift my arm show my scars. What may surprise you is, often, this act comes largely from my own parents and also the professionals I see for help.

It is good practice to always ask someone for permission if you wish to touch them, even if it means to give a hug. Because some of us who have challenges with trauma and dissociation are hypersensitive to touch, hence do be mindful of those around you and remember: If you do not like people grabbing you to see something, it’s the same, and perhaps even more, for those of us learning to accept our scars.

2. “Doesn’t it hurt?”

No, it doesn’t, at least for me. This answer may come as a surprise to many, but when I am under extreme stress and emotional distress, the act of physically inflicting hurt on myself gives me relief. The greater the physical “pain,” the greater the relief. For me, this goes for any act of self-harm. I can only compare this to someone who meets with an accident. The body goes into shock to the point the person may have a broken leg; however, he or she is not feeling any pain. I do not have a formal education in psychology or biology, but I believe my brain “shuts down” the part that feels pain, which aids me to self-harm without feeling the actual pain.

3. “The scars are so ugly! Why do you enjoy this? Can’t you stop?”

This is a three-part question, but it often comes together in one line for me. First, I want to say I do not enjoy this. Not at all. I would love to have clear and beautiful skin, too. Every time I look down at my arm to see the scars, I feel hatred toward myself. “How could I do this to myself? I am a horrible person.” And yet, I find I cannot stop. A coping method I have turned to since childhood to cope with the traumatic experiences and intense emotions, self-harm has become a default and almost automatic subconscious act whenever I am in distress.

4. “It doesn’t look too bad.”

I know this statement is in direct contrast to the one above. But I have had this said to me by peers and, sadly, professionals. There is not much need for me to elaborate on this statement as it is obvious it is unhelpful. This statement makes me feel like a failure and makes me want to hurt myself even more. The depression voice is always on standby, ready to jump in with a, “See, you are useless at even trying to hurt yourself. You are a coward. Go and do it again.”

5. Taking away or hiding the sharp items that I could use to hurt myself.

This is probably most relatable to parents and caregivers supporting someone who is challenged with self-harm. It is very natural to become protective and do what it takes to stop your loved one from hurting themselves. “If I take away their means to hurt themselves, then they have no choice but to stop, right?”

Unless you tag along with your loved one 24/7, it is very easy to drop by a store and pick something up. More importantly, in doing so, you are taking away the one thing I have which keeps me from attempting suicide. Until I learn to safely stop self-harming in therapy, to take it away from me by force will throw me into an emotional turmoil that will only make me feel worse.

So please, next time you notice someone with scars that look like they might be from self-harm, please be gentle and kind to the person and be extremely mindful of what you say. If you cannot entertain the idea of causing pain to yourself, imagine how much pain the person must be in to be able to cause harm to themselves. When I self-harm, it is desperate means for me to stay alive. It is a cry for help, for attention, for love, care and nonjudgmental support.

Getty image by Ranta Images

Originally published: May 5, 2021
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