The feeling of isolation amongst those who self-harm is immense, and this is often fuelled by the host of misconceptions which self-harm has been surrounded with.
Self-harm is the practice of deliberately damaging body tissue as a way of coping with inner feelings and pain. It is often misinterpreted as a suicidal act when generally nothing could be further from the truth, however as self-harm is a symptom of a person in great distress there is a higher chance of those who self-harm going on to attempt or commit suicide. Self is often about preserving our lives and not ending them.
Methods can vary from cutting the skin with razor blades, knives or broken glass to burning, scratching, hair pulling, biting and punching and although some of these methods may appear to be more extreme than others no method implies a greater amount of personal distress. Anyone who self-harms in any form is hurting emotionally and just because you think a person 'only pulls their hair' doesn't mean they can't possibly feel as bad as a person who cuts or burns. There are a number of different terms for this practice; it is often referred to as "self-injury" "self-mutilation" or "self-cutting". Self-harm seems to be the term most commonly used in the UK but in America they call it "self-injury". Many self-harmers object to the term "self-mutilation", it is a term, which seems to only add to the stigma already surrounding self-harm.
Self-harm is not only carried out by those confined to psychiatric wards or those suffering from severe psychotic disorders and it wont suddenly decrease if we ignore it as an issue. The chances are that even if you think this is something that does not affect you or any of your friends or relatives you would be wrong. It affects people of all ages, male and female, from all over the world and you may not even be aware that someone you know is struggling with it. People who self-harm are often ashamed of what they do and few 'come out' to others preferring to hide it to avoid being thought of as 'sick' or 'twisted'. This is a great shame because what someone who self-harms needs most is the support of their friends and families to deal with things. If a person is unhappy the last thing they need is to trust someone with something like this and face cruel or hurtful reactions only deepening their isolation. Self-harm is not an attention seeking device no matter what myths seems to have been conjured about it, if you have been told by someone that they harm themselves it is because they have trusted you enough to confide in you not because they are trying to manipulate you.
Why do people Self Harm?
People self-harm for a great number of different reasons; it is a coping method used by many to deal with feelings that they don't feel capable of dealing with in any other way or perhaps don't know how to deal with at all.
It is a temporary release from many negative emotions, which for some reason does seem to help many in the short term. It is obviously not an ideal way of coping neither is it particularly effective in the long term as it does not deal with whatever feelings or acts that have triggered the initial harming behaviour however it is understandable if you take the time to try and understand objectively. It turns inner pain outside therefore giving it a focus and making it easier to deal with. Physical pain is often easier to overcome than emotional pain and for this reason self-harm suddenly becomes less of a ghastly act and becomes something a little more understandable. Many find the physical pain comforting as it is temporarily distracting from any other forms of pain while others feel no pain whatsoever when they harm themselves but feel in control of what they are doing when they cannot control the actual feelings they are experiencing. When things seem unbearable others turn to alcohol, nicotine, drugs or maybe food to cope with things, self-harm is simply an alternative but socially unacceptable method of coping. I cannot use the word coping enough because I feel it is important to make it clear that self-harm is about coping and not about giving in., we just want more people to understand and break down the isolation those who self-harm feel because they are not alone in what they do. People self-harm for a variety of reasons;
Affirmations for people who self-harm
(Taken from the September 1997 issue of Self-Harm Overcome by Understanding and Tolerance (SHOUT))
Affirmations are positive, caring messages for us to give ourselves. Most people who self-harm tell themselves a lot of negative and painful things. Affirmations can be good things to say to yourself to help you feel a bit better. You can also write them up on the wall to look at during hard times. What you need to say to yourself is different at different times.
My feelings are real and important and need to be listened to. There are good reasons for the pain I feel. But it doesn't have to last forever. I deserve to have the support I need to get over the things that have hurt me.
When I feel bad or guilty or dirty, that's how I have been made to feel by things that have happened in my life. It's not the truth about me.
I am a good, worthwhile person who deserved to be respected and cared about.
In my heart of hearts, I know what I feel and what I need. I can trust and respect myself. I can stand up for what is right for me.
I have suffered more than enough in my life. I can have some kindness now. I don't deserve to be hurt anymore.
The most important way in which others can help self-harmers is by listening and not judging them. It is often very hard to even try and contemplate why a person would ever want to deliberately injure themselves and if it is someone you care about it can be very distressing and frustrating for all involved and it is ok to seek help from others yourself in helping the self-harmer. If someone has told you that they self-harm then it is because they trust you! This is often the biggest step for us because self-harm is not something we are proud of and often we go to great lengths to hide it. You're probably not aware of how much of a relief it was for that person to have finally told someone so in a big way you have *already* helped.
It is important not to be disgusted by a person who self-harm's just because you don't understand, they are still the same person you knew before you found out they harmed themselves and so it shouldn't be seen as a whole separate entity which needs to be immediately banished in order for you to continue loving them.
Self-harmers are often scared that when people find out they will 'disown' them and threaten to walk away if they don't stop immediately; this is a burden on a person as self-harm is in many ways an addiction, it is unlikely that they want to harm themselves, they feel they need to for whatever reason and would probably have preferred to have stopped rather than admit the problem to anyone. Threatening the self-harmer will do nothing other than isolate them further and probably stop them from confiding in you again so however much you want to scare the person into stopping you probably won't.
If you have found out by accident that a friend or relative hurts himself or herself the worst thing you can do is push them about it! If they want to discuss it with you they will in their own time and by relentlessly questioning them about it you are further backing up the belief they may already have that they are strange or alone. Self-harm is a private act and making someone who doesn't want to talk about it discuss it with you are intruding in their own personal space in the same way that there are things you may not want to discuss with others. Make it clear that you are always willing to listen and help without judging but don't intrude because you may well alienate them further!
It may be tempting to rush the person who harms himself or herself straight off seek professional help, but that is rarely the answer. People seem to believe that the medical profession can instantly cure anything but this is not the case with this sort of issue. If the person wants to seek help then fine but it should not be forced upon them because it will undoubtedly be ineffective as therapy if is impossible if the person receiving it isn’t cooperative. Psychiatry and drugs have had little success in dealing with self-harm so as much as you may want to get that kind of help for your friend or relative and as much as you may think it's 'for their own good' it isn’t.
Affirmations for people
My feelings are real and important and need to be listened to.
There are good reasons for the pain I feel.
But it doesn't have to last forever.
I deserve to have the support I need to get over the things that have hurt me.
When I feel bad or guilty or dirty, that's how I have been made to feel by things that have happened in my life.
It's not the truth about me.
I am a good, worthwhile person who deserved to be respected and cared about.
In my heart of hearts, I know what I feel and what I need.
I can trust and respect myself. I can stand up for what is right for me.
I have suffered more than enough in my life. I can have some kindness now.
I don't deserve to be hurt anymore.
Healing Our Past Experiences
Self-help and support services for men and women sexually abused as as children or adults
Charity Reg No1119389