What Is Self Injury?
Self Injury (SI) is the act of deliberately harming one’s own body. People who self-injure often express their inner pain, anger and anguish by cutting or burning, but self-injury is not meant as a suicidal act.
The most common type of self-injury is skin-cutting, but self-harm refers to a wide range of behaviors, including burning, scratching, trichotillomania, poisoning, and other types of injurious behaviors.
Read more about self-injury.
It’s hard to know what to do when someone we love hurts themselves deliberately. It’s even harder when we, ourselves, don’t know why we can’t just “stop” self-injuring. It’s hard to know what the treatment for cutting is, especially when so many people don’t understand reasons for self injury.
You are not alone. Here are some practical tips and advice about self injury for those who self injure and those who love people who self-injure.
If You Self Injure:
If you’re the one who struggles mightily with self-injury, you may not know why you can’t simply stop. Why others don’t raise awareness of self-injury. Why you cut yourself to release your inner pain. Here are some tips for coping with self-injury and the decision to stop self-injuring.
If you’ve decided to stop self-injuring, you may think it’s an easy decision – it’s not. Self-injury is a long-honed coping mechanism for you and stopping SI is similar to stopping any type of addiction: it’s easier said than done.
First, you must determine why you want to stop self-injuring: is it outside pressures? A family member who wants you to stop cutting? Remember: in order for you to be successful, you’re going to have to choose to stop self-injuring for yourself.
If you’re not giving up self-injury for yourself, your decision to stop cutting may fall short.
While it may be easy to stop self-injuring in the short term, you must develop some healthier long-term methods of coping with the urges to SI.
To stop self-injuring, you must first determine why you do it in the first place – is it stress? Anxiety? Anger? Frustration? You must develop other methods of coping with these feelings in order to stop hurting yourself.
If you have a special time and place where you self-injure, change your patterns of activity to reduce the urges to self-injure. Changes in latitude…or something.
Try putting yourself in a place (or situation) in which you can’t engage in self-injury BEFORE the urge to self-injure strikes.
It’s important to get rid of your self-injury tools. Make it a production and use it as a way to say goodbye to your old self and hello to your new self.
Change up your routines – especially the rituals associated with self-injury. Changing a part of your ritual can make SI more uncomfortable for you, and the less comfortable you are while engaging in self-injurious behavior, the less likely you are to want to engage in that behavior at all.
Become aware of your surroundings and your rituals, especially if you dissociate while you self-injure. Increasing awareness conflicts with dissociation and can help reduce the urge to SI. Add or remove steps from your SI ritual to promote awareness of your rituals.
Get some help. No, not necessarily like professional help (like a therapist), but open your mouth and tell others what you’ve been doing.
By telling others that you self-injure, you’re decreasing the social isolation of self-injury and allowing other people the opportunity to support you.
Use that support system when you feel the urge to self-injure. Call a trusted friend. Tell them that you’re feeling the urge to hurt yourself. Ask your friend to come sit with you while you sit through your discomfort.
When breaking the SI habit, try using the rule of two: don’t do anything that you can’t tell at least two people about.
In order to stop self-injuring, you’re going to have to change your thoughts (the ones you have immediately before injuring yourself) about SI.
Challenging the negative thoughts you have right before you self-injure is instrumental – challenge how accurate these thoughts are. Are they really true? Chances are, most of your negative thoughts are just that: thoughts and not reality.
When you start thinking those negative thoughts, one of the ways you can make them stop is to say, “STOP” out loud (or in your mind). It may take awhile to make the thoughts go away, but it can help.
Reframe those negative self-injury spiral thoughts from a negative into a positive. If you think, “I’m so stupid for cutting,” say to yourself, “I did what I had to do to make it through.”
There’s a lot of shame, guilt and secrecy that go along with self-injury. Remember: you were coping with stuff in your life in the best way you knew how. Certainly, you will learn more healthy ways to cope with life stuffs, but tell yourself the truth: you were coping the best you could. That’s not shameful.
Self-injury often occurs in those who have difficulty expressing or regulating their emotions.
It’s not uncommon to have negative thoughts about ourselves in relation to SI. Instead of making a judgmental statement like “I’m so stupid for cutting,” or “I’m so weak for burning myself,” sort out the facts and observe and describe them. “When I get in to a stressful situation, I don’t know how to express my feelings, and when I become overwhelmed I cut to release the pressure.”
You may not know all the words for what you’re feeling, so check with your body – how does this feeling feel inside your body – hot flashes? Fluttering tummy? Learn to describe these feelings so you can recognize them when they occur and stop before you begin self-injury.
Check in with yourself and your body every day to see how often you felt the urge to self injure, how strong the urge to SI was, and whether or not you succumbed to self-injury. This is a good way to make yourself more accountable and in check.
Remember that there is a difference between feelings and thoughts: feelings can be described in “I am” or “I feel” statements. Often, people think they’re describing a feeling, when it’s really thoughts they’re talking about. The phrases “I feel like,” or “I feel that,” are both thoughts, NOT feelings.
Change, don’t deny. You can’t pretend away those ugly negative thoughts. You must express, respect, and honor your feelings in healthier ways. Rather than pretend they don’t exist, remind yourself this:
- Feelings happen for a reason.
- Feelings are often illogical.
- Feelings are transitory – they often change and/or disappear over time.
Once you learn to identify your feelings, one of the easiest ways to change them is to express them. Feelings are often satisfied once expressed. Each feeling has a different way of expressing itself (usually in a physical way) – sadness may be expressed by crying. Self-injury is often the way that people who have difficulties expressing emotions let those feelings out. Learning that there are other ways to express feelings without negative consequences is very important.
Changing the physical sensations. Most people who SI describe the build-up to self-injury as a tension that is released when you hurt yourself. Examine the physical feelings you have before SI and figure out a better way to release the tensions. One such method is exercise.
One method that helps some through a really strong self injury urge is to find something that has a very powerful sensation. For example, really strong mints, something with an interesting texture, a sound you find soothing or interesting – make a little “survival kit” that you can take with you so that if you have the overwhelming urge you can shake your mind out of the SI place more easily.
When you’ve made the decision to stop self-injuring, the most important thing you can do is to tell someone else you’re ready to stop. Telling someone helps with the isolation and the shame associated with self-injury. If you can’t do it face-to-face, do it in a letter or an email.
Self Injury Relapses: they happen. When stressed, your brain will default to the path you’ve taken most often. Your brain is familiar with self-injury so it’s easier for it to go down that connection. Over time, new connections will be made, so keep on recovering from self-injury.
Falling off the wagon and relapsing into self injury doesn’t mean you’ll never quit or that you’re an utter failure. Instead look at it as a learning experience: choose something different next time.
If you’re ready to get help for cutting or self-harm, the first step is to confide in another person. It can be scary to talk about the very thing you have worked so hard to hide, but it can also be a huge relief to finally let go of your secret and share what you’re going through
1) Opening Up:
Choose someone who isn’t going to gossip or try to take control of your recovery.
Who makes you feel accepted and supported? It could be a friend, teacher, religious leader, counselor, or relative. But you don’t necessarily have to choose someone you are close to. Sometimes it’s easier to start by talking to someone you respect-such as a teacher, religious leader, or counselor-who has a little more distance from the situation and won’t find it as difficult to be objective. While you talk:
Focus on your feelings:
Instead of sharing detailed accounts of your self-harm behavior focus on the feelings or situations that lead to it. This can help the person you’re confiding in better understand where you’re coming from. It also helps to let the person know why you’re telling them. Do you want help or advice from them? Do you simply want another person to know so you can let go of the secret?
Communicate in whatever way you feel most comfortable:
If you’re too nervous to talk in person, consider starting off the conversation with an email, text, or letter (although it’s important to eventually follow-up with a face-to-face conversation). Don’t feel pressured into sharing things you’re not ready to talk about. You don’t have to show the person your injuries or answer any questions you don’t feel comfortable answering.
Give the person time to process:
As difficult as it is for you to open up, it may also be difficult for the person you tell-especially if it’s a close friend or family member. Sometimes, you may not like the way the person reacts. Try to remember that reactions such as shock, anger, and fear come out of concern for you. It may help to print out this article for the people you choose to tell. The better they understand cutting and self-harm, the better able they’ll be to support you.
Talking about self-harm can be stressful and stir up a lot of emotions:
Don’t be discouraged if the situation feels worse for a short time right after sharing your secret. It’s uncomfortable to confront and change long-standing habits. But once you get past these initial challenges, you’ll start to feel better.
2) Identify Your Triggers:
Understanding what triggers you to cut or self-harm is a vital step towards recovery. If you can figure out what function your self-injury serves, you can learn other ways to get those needs met-which in turn can reduce your desire to hurt yourself. Self-harm is most often a way of dealing with emotional pain. What feelings make you want to cut or hurt yourself? Sadness? Anxiety? Anger? Loneliness? Shame? Emptiness?
Work on Your Emotional Awareness:
If you’re having a hard time pinpointing the feelings that trigger your urge to cut, you may need to work on your emotional awareness. Emotional awareness means knowing what you are feeling and why. It’s the ability to identify and express what you are feeling from moment to moment and to understand the connection between your feelings and your actions. Feelings are important pieces of information that our bodies give to us, but they do not have to result in actions like cutting or self-harming.
Paying Attention to Feelings Without Releasing Them:
The idea of paying attention to your feelings-rather than numbing them or releasing them through self-harm-may sound frightening to you. You may be afraid that you’ll get overwhelmed or be stuck with the pain. But the truth is that emotions quickly come and go if you let them. If you don’t try to fight, judge, or beat yourself up over the feeling, you’ll find that it soon fades, replaced by another emotion. It’s only when you obsess over the feeling that it persists.
3) Replace Old Coping Mechanisms With New Ones:
This may be the hardest step for people who self-injure as it can be very challenging to find what works for you – what appears below are suggestions, and they are not one-size-fits-all solutions. You may have to experiment to find out what works best for you.
If you self-harm to release tension or vent anger, you could try:
- Exercise vigorously run, do major housework, dance, anything to get your body moving.
- Punch a cushion or mattress or scream into your pillow
- Squeeze a stress ball or squish Play-Doh or clay
- Rip something up (sheets of paper, a magazine)
- Make some noise (play an instrument, bang on pots and pans)
If you self-harm because you feel disconnected or numb, you could:
- Call a friend (you don’t have to talk about self-harm)
- Take a cold shower
- Hold an ice cube in the crook of your arm or leg
- Chew something with a very strong taste, like chili peppers, peppermint, or a grapefruit peel
- Go online to a self-help website, chat room, or message board
If you self-harm to express pain and intense emotions, you could:
- Paint, draw, or scribble on a big piece of paper with red ink or paint
- Start a journal in which to express your feelings
- Compose a poem or song to say what you feel
- Write down any negative feelings and then rip the paper up
- Listen to music that expresses what you’re feeling
If you self-harm to calm and soothe yourself, you could:
- Take a bath or hot shower
- Pet or cuddle with a dog or cat
- Wrap yourself in a warm blanket
- Massage your neck, hands, and feet
- Listen to calming music
Substitutes for the cutting sensation
- Use a red felt tip pen to mark where you might usually cut
- Rub ice across your skin where you might usually cut
- Put rubber bands on wrists, arms, or legs, and snap them instead of cutting or hitting
Why Does My Loved One Self-Injure?
As cutting and self-harm tend to be taboo subjects, many people harbor serious misunderstandings about their loved one’s state of mind. Ignore these common myths about self-injury
Myth : People who self-injure are crazy and/or dangerous.
Fact: It is true that many people who self-harm suffer from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or a previous trauma-just like millions of others in the general population, but that doesn’t make them crazy or dangerous. Self-injury is how they cope. Sticking a label like “crazy” or “dangerous” on a person isn’t accurate or helpful.
Myth: People who self-injure want to die.
Fact: When people self-harm, they are usually not trying to kill themselves—they are trying to cope with their problems and pain. In fact, self-injury may be a way of helping themselves go on living. However, there is always the risk of a more severe injury than intended and, in the long-term, people who self-injure have a much higher risk of suicide, which is why it’s so important to seek help.
Myth: If the wounds aren’t bad, it’s not that serious.
Fact: The severity of a person’s wounds has very little to do with how much they may be suffering. Don’t assume that because the wounds or injuries are minor, there’s nothing to worry about
Myth: People who cut and self-injure are trying to get attention.
Fact: On the surface, this sounds like a reason, however, the painful truth is that people who self-harm generally hurt themselves in secret. Think about it – if they really wanted attention, they’d do something flashy and showy to gain attention. They aren’t trying to manipulate others or draw attention to themselves. In fact, shame and fear can make it very difficult to come forward and ask for help
If Your Loved One Self Injures:
Learning that someone you love dearly struggles with hurting him or herself can be hugely shocking. Here are some tips for loved ones of self-injurers.
While the temptation to tell your loved one that he or she should stop self-injuring comes from a good place, adding the pressure of your judgment can hurt someone who engages in self-harm.
Support your loved one who uses SI – which is often used as an unhealthy coping mechanism – by letting them know you love them NO MATTER WHAT.
Learning that someone you love self-injures can bring up a lot of conflicting emotions.
If someone you love confides in you that he or she self-injures, it may be a great emotional shock to you. Most who self-injure do so in secret, so while the SI behavior may have gone on for a long while, you may never have suspected it: you may not have known why your loved one refused to wear short-sleeved shirts or shorts in hot weather.
You may want to deny that your loved one cuts – this is a common reaction to learning that someone you love self-injures. However, denial is extremely harmful for someone who self-injures, as it denies the emotional pain your loved one is.
While you do not have to dwell on it, it’s important to acknowledge that your loved one has a problem – a serious problem – and needs help.
You may be angry when you learn that your loved one hurts his or herself. Especially once you connect the dots and see the lies that your loved one told you to cover up his or her behavior.
You may feel frustrated – self-injury isn’t something you can control or necessarily feel as though you can help with. You cannot control the behavior of another, no matter how you’d like to. This may make you feel helpless.
Make sure that you keep SI an open dialog between you and your loved one who self-injures. Ignoring self-injury does NOT make it go away, and can reinforce feelings of isolation and shame.
If your loved one opens up about self-injury to you, know that it was an incredible burden for them to share. Thank them for trusting you with this information.
Be available to your loved one within limits (limits YOU can handle) – tell them that if they feel the urge to cut or burn coming on, to call you so you can sit with them.
Spend more time with your loved one – most people who self-injure do so while alone. Keeping them occupied can help reduce the self-injuring behavior.
If you’re having challenges with coping with the self-injury of a loved one, don’t hesitate to talk to a therapist about your feelings.
Ask how you can help your loved one – often, it’s hard to know HOW to help. Instead of guessing, ASK!
Keep the negative thoughts and judgment to yourself – you’re certainly entitled to your feelings, but the person who self-injures doesn’t need more shame heaped upon him or her.
You must put up some emotional boundaries between yourself and your loved one, especially if the person who engages in SI has issues setting boundaries him or herself. Be clear and consistent with your support as well as make sure that he or she knows that you have your limits and what they are.
What To Say To Someone Who Self Injures:
“I support you no matter what.”
“How long have you been hurting yourself?”
“Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me.”
“How can I help?”
“How did you learn how to hurt yourself?”
“What makes you want to hurt yourself?”
“Do you want to stop self-injuring?”
What NOT To Do If Your Loved One Self Injures:
Sometimes, despite our very best intentions, we say or do something to make our loved ones hurt more than they already are. Here are some things to avoid doing if you have a loved one who self-injures.
Do not pressure your loved one to stop injuring. SI is an intensely shameful way of coping and adding the pressure of your judgment will likely serve to increase the self-injurious behavior.
Don’t issue an ultimatum – you must stop hurting yourself or ELSE. This will only make your loved one want to hide his or her shameful secret.
Don’t scold your loved one for injuring him or herself – he or she already feels shame for his or her behavior.
Don’t press the issue – if you’ve tried talking to your loved one who self-injures and he or she doesn’t want to continue the conversation, don’t force them.
Don’t make judgmental remarks about self-injury to your loved one. If you haven’t walked around in their shoes, you don’t know what it’s like to be them.
Don’t discourage the self-injury (this is a hard one). SI is a way that many people cope with emotional pain; they may not have other, healthier ways of coping. Making comments like this may make the person who engages in SI retreat further into isolation and despair.
Don’t assume that the person who self-injures is suicidal. Self-injury is not a suicidal act.
Don’t take your feelings out on your loved one – that’s for a therapist, not you, to handle.
What Not To Say To Someone Who Self Injures:
“Why don’t you just STOP?”
“You’re just doing it for attention.”
“You’re trying to manipulate me.”
“You’re not the same person I thought you were.”
“How could you do this to me?”
Page last audited 8/2018