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Why I Self-Harmed and How I Stopped

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I think our view of self-harm is backwards. We tend to treat self-harm as a symptom, or an independent issue when, in reality, I think it’s actually a coping mechanism. You don’t hurt as a result of cutting, you cut because you’re hurting. There’s often a point to self-harm — it accomplishes something. So maybe the way to combat it is to try to retrace its motivation factors to their source.

Maybe if we understand why we self-harm, we can successfully brainstorm how to stop. That is why I’m sharing four reasons why you may be cutting based on personal experience, and some humble proposals on on how to shift the battle right from the source and use positive coping mechanisms to fight it out at the roots.

Reason to cut: because it’s real.

What can be more real than pain? The feel of it, the look of it, the act of it — the visible, tangible results it yields. Sometimes life can feel like it’s suspended in a limbo. We get stuck in a reality that is so dark and heavy that the outside world seems flimsy in comparison. We need to claim back the authenticity of our experience. Pain cuts through the matrix. It tends to inspire a reaction that burns in comparison to the mundane apathy of everyday existence.

Instead, try:

Concretize. Do something that will give you something to show for the effort: paint, push-ups, bake cinnamon cookies, do a sudoku puzzle, clean your room. Do anything that requires your present focus and has a physical element to it.

Under depression’s veil, manual actions can sometimes feel useless. It’s key to remember that yes, the cookies will be eaten, the laundry will pile, the puzzle will be forgotten, but also remember that the pain will fade. Your goal is to take the agony of the moment and create something now, create something out of this ache, something that is not hurtful to you, because you do not deserve more hurt.

Do something nice. You know what else I think feels as real as bleeding? Giving. Text a friend who you know is struggling. Make a sandwich for your sister (gasp). Make a care package for someone who just went through surgery. If time and resources allow, volunteer. By giving, you will experience the extent of your capability to change the status quo.

I don’t think this is a distraction. This is to address a craving for that which is real. Pain cannot be ignored, it doesn’t compromise. Challenge it. Create something true — either in tangibility or transcendence — that challenges the monopoly self-harm is claiming on your reality.

Reason to cut: because it gives you a sense of control.

Things might be spiraling out of control, and it’s scary, and it’s humbling, and it’s eating at you. By causing pain to yourself, you are probably creating a venue that you can channel your autonomy into — you are tapping into the control you possess over your body, over the razor, over self-expression. You get to decide where to cut and how deep and what your body will be experiencing in the coming hours. Self-harm makes it possible to grasp your hopelessness and fear by the throat and show them who the real boss is.

Instead, try:

Extend your realm of self-control. Erect Barriers. Push your limits. Make a list. What is something you are afraid of? Try it. Set aside a day of the week where you don’t spend any money, ingest any sugar or don’t let slip a single word of gossip. Implement little aspects of self-control into your daily living.

It’s probably best to aim for something small — but make it happen. This is a longterm battle plan, but I think what it ultimately gives us is a new understanding of how much we actually rule over — how much we actually can control when the territory is ourself.

Surrender. This is the flip side of the coin. Sounds easier, but it may be more brutal. Pull up a chair, light a scented candle, make a list of what you can control and what you cannot. The second list will probably be tougher and more painful. Write it all out. Study it. Edit it as time goes on if necessary.

When the urge to self-harm is strong, study the list. That may seem counterintuitive. I mean, way to rub it in. But you’re cultivating acceptance. And in acceptance, there is an incredible liberation. Later on, after you’ve let go of the things out of your realm of control, you can start working on the first list — learn to accept what you are capable of. Learn to own that control, learn to exercise and celebrate it. Let this new perspective replace that sense of control self-harm used to give you.

Reason to cut: because you’re angry, damnit.

Anger is underrated. Maybe self-harm is a form of punishment for a failure, maybe it’s a distraction from injustice you were forced to witness, maybe it’s a way to engage in destruction in response to the helplessness you feel in the face of evil you cannot fight (maybe it’s in the past, or in another country, etc).

Cutting is harsh, it’s simple, and maybe you’re taking out everything on your skin because there’s too much anger and not enough outlet and it’s all too much.

Instead, try:

Let it out. Beneath its tough mask, anger is really just a feeling like any other. It grows and grows, hits its crescent and then subsides. The goal here is to give anger a platform that will be safe, but spacious enough to contain it.

A suitable platform is often language. Language captures the vastness and desolation of our feelings and resizes them into definite, limited, measurable words. Writing a letter to the person you currently despise almost always works. Let the words scorch. Let the words howl. It can be to yourself, too. Validate your own rage, empathize with the magnitude of the injustice of it all. In the aftermath, many people find it helpful to shred the letter or burn it — a way to annihilate the toxicity, if you will. Or keep a folder of these letters as a reminder of what has hurt you and what you have defeated. Something to reread on rough nights, or to keep as a silent testament to your strength forever.

Another method of harnessing language is speech. You can use the recorder on your phone or laptop. Verbalize the pain, the unfairness — whatever it is you need to express your emotions. Shrink the anger into a 15 minute confession. When you do this, you turn the beast to bytes. Like the letters, this can be deleted right away or kept in a secret folder and listened to again if ever the need arises.

Establish another outlet. This can be super tough because it requires change. The power of our anger can be manipulated for our benefit. Exercise can be a great way to distill the tension and let out the rage. Walking, burpees, cycling — fueled by the passion inside you — can be powerful. The interesting connection between self-harm and exercise is that they can both be “physically painful,” and they can both provide an outlet for emotions. The difference between the two is that the latter provides a surer and healthier sense of stability after the act. You may be tired, but relaxed or lighter somehow. It can be grueling to climb out of the pit of feeling, to unbury yourself and stick on sneakers and conquer that bike, but it will be worth it.

Some other outlets that harness abstract anger into a physical application of energy are: dancing, shouting, singing with the music blasting, driving, washing dishes (I kid you not), ripping newspapers, moving furniture (and sweeping up once you’re back there).

Reason to cut: because it reflects our inside.

We yearn to be understood — to be seen. One of the most painful aspects of struggling with internal battles is that people don’t see them. You’re walking through the supermarket with taunting red-horned demons on your shoulder and the cashier compliments your manicure. Keeping up the pretense can be unbalancing. And also exhausting. And isolating. And demanding. And… just hard.

Self-harm stamps the truth onto our skin. It’s a SOS, an attempt at explanation: this is how much it hurts inside my head right now. It cuts straight through the façade that things are alright. It’s a way to ensure that the people you care about will not turn away, will not choose to believe you’re not hurting. It can be reminder to you, too.

Instead, try:

Self- expression. Treat yourself. Go to a Target, a Barnes & Nobles or visit and buy a notebook. And on the nights when the razor beckons, write a poem. Write about your day, about the scars you’re currently tempted to inflict, about the angst of wondering what’s the point of it all.

Or buy a sketchbook. Paint your pain. Sketch the dark side of your mind. Or just splash around colors — surrender to the chaos, let your gut feelings rule. Take a step back after. Here lies a tribute to the things eating your insides right now. You’ve coaxed them out, you’ve bared their face to this universe — you’re a victor. Post them onto a blog or a peer run blog like Inspire or Daily Strength. Show them to a friend or frame them. Or keep them a secret between you and yourself.

Seek intimacy. We aren’t meant to be alone. We yearn to be able to be upfront in front of others. Self-harm is one way of showing the world what we’re going through. Another possible way is to work on your relationships. Brave the unknown. Send a text that starts with “I feel” and be brutal — let the honesty speak for itself. Write a letter and send it in the mail to someone you love. Be vulnerable. If nothing else, it will build up your tolerance for when the right person delightfully and unexpectedly comes into your life.

Another option is reaching out to others in the same boat. Make a buddy system with someone struggling with self-harm. If the thought of doing this in real life sounds impossible to you, maybe consider The Buddy Project, a site that kindly offers you anonymity and the option to never meet said buddy face-to-face. Join a blog like The Butterfly Project, another platform that promotes self-expression and baring your mind. Break down the barriers using your incredibly unique and complicated self instead of using a blade. Attempt to bare your authentic self to the elements.

And lastly, remember you’re powerful. Remember this too shall pass. Just hold on… a little bit longer now. We need you here.

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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Lead image via contributor

Originally published: September 26, 2017
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