Some hurts are deeper than a cut. Some thoughts are scarier than a razor blade. Sometimes, all you want just a moment’s release from your brain space—from the hurt, from the poison, from the struggle, from the invasive, intrusive thoughts.
Many ask those who harm themselves, “Why do you hurt yourself? How does it actually help anything?!” The answer is: We usually don’t know and it doesn’t help. Not at all. But for a brief moment, you feel relief—perhaps even pleasure—but at the very least a moment of distraction. That’s the appeal for the self harmer: release.
No, harming is not the answer. But when you have no answers—when you don’t even know what the question is… it is merely a temporary escape.
I know many want to understand why those close to them are hurting themselves. They want to know why. They try and fix the behavior. But what many fail to realize is that, as hurtful as those behaviors might be, there are deeper cuts and scars. The destructive habits are only symptoms of a much deeper hurt. A hurt much, much harder to get away from. A hurt much harder to fix than the behavior itself.
The good news is that there is hope for the one who self-harms to reform their habits into healthier ones and there are ways you can help. But before I give you some suggestions as to how you can address this, let me give you three common misconceptions about self-harm:
- They are doing it for attention. More often than not (though there are exceptions, but they are rare) the self-harmer does NOT want attention. This is the very reason they are harming—it’s a silent way of screaming. It’s far more likely that they’re embarrassed by their habits and don’t want people to know.
- They must be using a razor or blade. Self-harm comes in many forms, and no one is less destructive than another. Those who self-injure can do so by scratching or picking their skin (dermatillomania), punching or banging their heads against walls, biting their nails, or pulling out their hair or eyelashes (trichotillomania).
- They are doing this because they want to kill themselves. Most often not true. Self-harming is a coping mechanism—an unhealthy one, yes—but to the one who self-injures, it’s just one way they are managing their overwhelming thoughts and feelings.
Instead, you should always see self-harm as:
- A silent cry for help (even if they are doing it for attention—which, again, is the rare reason—they need the help!)
- A symptom of much bigger problems under the surface
- A need to seek professional help
You should always respond with:
You should never respond by:
- Being angry. This will drive them to hide the behavior further.
- Making them feel more shame/guilt than they already feel. Shame perpetuates the self-harming cycle (and will also cause them to try to hide the behavior).
- Assuming the “Why.” They may not even know the true “why” themselves. Cognitive behavioral therapy is needed to investigate the “why” and develop healthy coping mechanisms—and a certified therapist is the best person to guide them through this process.
So, What Can I Do?
Unfortunately, there isn’t any one solution to breaking the habit of self-injury. Just like any other unhealthy habit, it is hard to break and no one solution will work for everyone. Be patient—this process will be more frustrating for them than it is for you. Work with them until you find something that works for them.
Here are some suggestions for how you can help others (or yourself!) find an escape from self-injury:
Be patient. Like I said, this is an unhealthy coping mechanism—an unhealthy habit. How easy are habits to break? How easy are habits to break when we can even walk away from them? Realise just how much harder it is to break a habit that you can’t walk away from—a habit within yourself. There will, most likely, be slip-ups—especially if this has been a habit they’ve had for a long time. Trust me—they’re frustrated too. Let them know you’re in this for the long haul. Give grace upon grace.
Seek a therapist. A good therapist. This should be first and foremost. Self-injury arises from deep hurts, hurts that even the one who harms themselves often can’t pinpoint. A good therapist will help with finding and sorting out those thoughts. I know that, for me, a therapist was key in realizing that harming was merely an unhealthy coping mechanism—all I had to do was find healthier ways of coping. Of course, it was still hard work—but the realization helped me move forward and see harming for what it really was.
Also, don’t be afraid to try medication if it’s recommended. For many, medication has been found to alleviate the desire to self-harm and bring peace to the mind.
Find a fidget. Self-harming is an unhealthy coping mechanism. It’s a way of distracting one’s self from unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Those who have a tendency to fiddle and fidget will be more likely to use harming as a coping mechanism. Therefore, finding a harmless fidget can be a great distraction from the desire to self-harm. Some fidget suggestions: something small you can keep in your pocket, a fidget cube/spinner, bracelets on your wrists, a spinning ring, a necklace, a make up brush you can glide over your arms or your face, or even a craft project.
Face your thoughts. Again, a good therapist will help with this, but you have to be ready to dig deep. Self-injury is usually a result of mental anguish—there are thoughts, feelings, and traumas underlying that are scarier or more painful than the cuts and scratches being inflicted. If you only deal with the behavior of harming, you are only dealing with and healing the surface. If you truly care about this person, you will help them to escape the horrors and hurts in their mind.
Use of the power of prayer. God cares. He cares so, so much. He wants you to cast your every care upon Him (1 Peter 5:7). We must be constant and fervent in prayer—especially when we are battling an established habit. When we pray, we connect ourselves to His strength, and will find that we can be conquerors, despite our many weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Keep a journal. Keeping a journal can help you to learn thought patterns and how they correspond with your habits. It can also be a great way to remember how far you’ve come in the future!
Start practicing self care. Again, self-injury is an unhealthy way of coping. Find some healthy ways of coping—ways in which you can show yourself kindness—and be present throughout the process. Some ideas: washing your face, having a bath, taking a shower, braiding your hair, making time for a hobby, going for a walk, or preparing a nutritious meal.
Use affirmations. What we say to ourselves has tremendous power. Often those who self-harm have a negative pattern of self-talk—an “inner bully”. Pick an affirmation or motto for the day, week, month, or year that you can quickly pick up in times of distress.
Celebrate milestones. You’ve made it a day? A week? A month? A year? Celebrate it!
Reach out. You are able to be fully healed when you reach out to others. This is a sentiment stated by many recovery programs, and one stated by the Lord Himself: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed” (James 5:16). Start small—with those you trust and know will be gracious and helpful—and eventually make your story known.
Find others you can help. While this may be something you are tempted by for the rest of your life, there will come a time when you can say, “This is something I am overcoming”. Temptation isn’t the issue, giving up and giving in is (James 1:13-15)—and there’s really no one more suited to help another person who struggles with self-injury than the one who has done so and learnt to cope with those temptations. When you’re ready, turn your story into one of healing and help.
I know that if you are self-harming, you feel ashamed and afraid. You feel like you can’t do this—but the promise is for you, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). You may not be strong enough, but God is. Lean on Him.
You can and you will conquer this if you lean on Him!
And I know that if you are watching someone you love struggle with self-injury, you feel at a loss as to how to help. But I want you to know that you are helping by caring. Those who self-injure struggle with feelings of worthlessness and shame. Your unconditional love, patience, kindness, and grace will make all the difference. The burden is heavy, I know—thank you for helping to carry it (Galatians 6:2).
God be with you, as you heal yourself and help others!
Thank you for being one of the ones who cares.