Updated: Jun 11
Self harm is a small part of a bigger problem. And it’s thoroughly misunderstood. People who self harm do it partly to try and fix the bigger problem. Of course it doesn’t work but if you're self harming, you don’t always see that.
Ruth, 22, told me some of her story:
"I’ve lived with depression for years. I take daily medication and see my GP regularly as well as having counselling. But none of that stops the depression. The hardest part for me to handle is when I have to work, and I feel really depressed, I can't deal with it and all I want to do is sit and cry and feel sorry for myself. So, to cope, I eat bad food, have thoughts about ending my life and I self harm.
Although I have support, friends and family, I tend to push them away, I don't know why. Maybe it's the shame. I feel that I can't control my thoughts. I've lost many friends and almost lost my life when the depression got the better of me and I tried to end it.
I'm tired of hiding my self harm. If I'm in a bad place I want to be able to tell everyone close so they know I'm not just being miserable or unsociable. It’s because I'm dying inside. I used to try to hide my problems and the thoughts I had. I was ashamed and I honestly thought I was unlovable. I hated me. Still do sometimes. Why could anyone else possibly love me."
Ruth describes her state of emotional health where self harming is one way of dealing with emotional pain.
Emotional pain is at the root of all self harm.
The Cycle Of Self Harm
Self-harm is often about trying to relieve the build-up of emotional pressure resulting from upsetting thoughts and feelings. This can give temporary relief from the emotional turmoil. But, the relief is only temporary because the root causes of the emotional pain haven’t been resolved. Often, feelings of guilt and shame follow, and this continues the cycle.
The temporary relief can mean that self-harm may become a person’s normal way of dealing with emotional difficulties. It’s important to learn new coping strategies to deal with life’s problems because this will, in turn, make it easier to break the cycle of self-harm.
Self Harming Is Very Misunderstood, Here’s What It Actually Does For The Self Harmer
Please don’t read the following if you are at risk of being
triggered into self harming
Self harming is an attempt to release the build up of emotional pain.
It starts with negative self talk. Thoughts build up about everything that’s wrong. These thoughts trigger a wave of negative emotions including despair, anger, frustration, depression and grief.
Cravings may start, cravings for an escape from the inner turmoil. The inner turmoil is like being trapped in the worst parts of a Harry Potter film. There’s a pressure that builds up which screams out to be released.
You beg the universe for someone to call or to just know what you're feeling. Though at that moment you know if anybody did call, you would refuse their help, knowing you don’t deserve to complain. You return back to feeling isolated and alone. Then you do it.
The first time, it feels incredible, like it sharpens your mind then brings a sense of relief. The endorphins rush in because you’ve done something proactive instead of just sitting there feeling broken. It’s powerful; it’s like you are in control.
Just like taking a drug, that feeling only lasts the first time. After that it's a game of diminishing returns as the guilt and shame kick in big time. The full-size high gets harder and harder to attain. You might injure yourself more as you compulsively try to match the first time you did it.
So, Is Self Harm Seeking Attention?
Yes and no. Yes because the person who’s harming needs attention. No because at that moment it’s not what they’re looking for.
I talk from my own experience. I self harmed as a 15 year old, before it had a name. I still have the scars.
It fulfilled 3 things:
A way to get relief from emotional pain. Although the relief was short lived until the guilt and shame kicked in
A distraction tactic from my inner turmoil. I no longer felt the turmoil, just the sharp, then dull, pain of the cut.
A better solution to ending my life. I didn’t crave an end to my life; I craved an end to the turmoil. But I did have suicidal thoughts.
Is Any Of That Attention Seeking? Well, Probably It Is But Not In The Way You Think
People who self harm aren’t looking for attention at the time they harm. If it were offered they would probably decline it. They are really looking for relief.
However, taking in the bigger picture, they need positive attention because they are hurting. Big time.
Anyone who’s seeking relief from emotional pain needs help. They feel their life is in a mess and they probably feel unloved and utterly crushed by life; their heart aches with every beat.
Life dishes up many difficulties: illness, childhood abuse or neglect, heartbreak, injury, death, abandonment. We become wounded. Some more than others.
If we’re not equipped to heal these broken pieces of our lives, or we don’t have the support of other people to help us, what can we do except rely on our own shaky resources?
As a young girl, I didn’t have anyone around who could help me. There was no safe place to talk out the hurt. I couldn’t lean in to someone who would listen. No one held out their hands to comfort me.
So, I relied on my own unsteady willpower and tried to help myself the only way I knew how. Sometimes that included harming myself.
So, yes, self harmers need attention. But, it's not a tantrum led, spoilt brat type of attention that is associated with that phrase. It's a quite and desperate need for some kindness and understanding that they are in severe enough emotional pain to require some serious help.
Related Article: Anxiety Symptoms?
If Self Harm Is A Way Of Seeking Attention, Then This Is The Attention That’s Needed
Everybody hurts differently and everyone copes with it in their own special way. For that you have to acknowledge the self harmer as trying to do the best they can with what’s available to them.
Here’s 6 ways you can help anyone who’s in emotional turmoil and try to give them the help they need.
1. Help Them Get Professional Help
Self harming is a sign of needing professional help.
Sometimes, your support may be enough, but other times you can help by getting a professional expert who understands the self harm process and has had experience of helping other people with similar problems.
This is particularly important if you are close to the self harmer because you may be too emotional yourself to give a sound and objective response.
2. Be Present
Many people think they have to say helpful things but often it’s just having someone there that can feel reassuring.
Just showing up can be powerful. Just sitting close to someone can feel comforting.
You may want to talk “at” the self harmer with all your good advice and poignant questions. It’s a natural reaction to a difficult situation.
However, please resist if you can even if it’s the hardest thing to do.
Staying silent is your gift. Just look and listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking, and listening activates solutions to problems.
If you feel the need to talk, instead look at them with love. See them as a flower that needs your love to unfold.
Be comfortable just being there, being present and staying silent. Silence in the face of suffering is difficult, but it can be the best thing you can do.
Now you have shown up, allow your loved one to start talking.
Stay as present as you can with them. Listen carefully to what they are saying. Listen carefully to their words and tone.
At some point, and not too fast, they will need some response.
But what should you say? Validate them.
This means to support them by accepting and recognizing their truth. It may not be your truth and you don’t even need to agree with what they say. However, it would be wise to acknowledge that this is someone else’s truth – their truth.
As an example, if the self harmer is saying:
“I feel as if the world is against me, nobody loves me, no one can love me because I’m unlovable.”
You may feel despair because you do love them. You’ve told them many times you love them. You’ve said it so many times you can’t understand why they don’t believe it.
But at that moment the best thing to say is to validate their pain by responding in a way that tells them you understand.
“I understand that you don’t feel loveable” will be enough to tell them you’ve really heard them and you accept that’s how they feel.
Validating is a powerful way of connecting with someone and it surpasses any well-intentioned advice.
Related Article: How Can A Dysfunctional Family Affect A Child?
Reframing is finding an alternative view for the self harmer.
You are not challenging the facts but the assumptions they’ve made about the facts.
“I know you think you are unlovable. However, I can assure you that you are loved and here’s who I know loves you: …..”
This is successful when you avoid confrontation. The key is to give irrefutable evidence of what you are saying. Then, connect it with something the other person truly believes. If said with a quiet gentle approach, it will help the other person see it from a different viewpoint.
5. Don’t Make It About You
Being emotional and explaining how worried you’ve been won’t help. Sitting next to someone who is going through emotional turmoil or grief can stir your own distress because you care so much about someone who is hurting which makes you feel upset.
If you allow your emotions to take over, although you may think you were being helpful, often it comes across as unhelpful to the other person. There will be other opportunities for you to share your own upset with other people who can listen, but at a later date.
6. Don’t give Advice
Advice is not what the hurting person wants when they’re going through emotional turmoil. What they do need is your support, someone to listen, knowing they are not alone.
Staying silent and restraining from offering advice, in presence of emotional turmoil is no small task. It would be easy to find something to say that would help or to save the day. Even when someone does ask for advice, they are most likely to need a sounding board rather than advice.
If they do ask for advice and you're stumped, a good way to respond is by asking the question back to them. For example:
Them: “What do you think I should do?”
You: “I’m not sure at the moment because I need more facts but what’s your best guess at what you should do?”
It always comes as a surprise to me how much resilience and potential healing the human psyche has when given the right conditions. Being a listener, validating and staying present & still are what we can do to help create the right conditions for others to find their internal sat nav.
Once they’ve linked in to their sat nav, the potential for self healing is phenomenal. Sometimes all we have to do is create the space, for another person to find their way back home.
Related Article: Suffering From Depression Unmotivated And Uninspired?
If you are in need of support, please call the UK Samaritans on: 116 123
Check out my free to download Anxiety First Aid Kit:
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