Discovering that a friend or relative self-harms can be extremely upsetting. It can be hard to understand why a person would deliberately hurt themselves, and people often go through a range of emotions, like feeling shocked, angry, saddened, confused or guilty.
To help you to support the person who self-harms in an understanding and caring way, it will be useful to learn why people self-harm and about some helpful strategies before you offer your support. Useful resources are given below.
It is important to take self-harming seriously. A person who self-harms will describe their behaviour as a way of coping with overwhelming feelings associated with difficult or painful experiences. For some it becomes addictive, a way of feeling better and re-establishing control over their emotions. It is rarely used as ‘attention seeking’, most self-harmers try to keep it a secret and feel very ashamed.
Because self-harm is often an expression of something going on for the person internally, ask about how they are feeling, and try to explore what the issues might be. If the person does not feel comfortable talking to you, try to make sure they know you are there to listen if they want to talk, and ensure they know of other places they can go to get support.
“Look at the individual, not the harm. Look at the person beyond the scars. Scars are not important. The person that did them is important.”
It can be very difficult for a person to stop self harming, and it may take them a long time to do so. If the person says they want to stop, discussing ways to gradually reduce the harming can sometimes be helpful. Health professionals call this harm-minimisation, either reducing the severity or frequency of the self harming. The important thing here is that the person will need to find a different way of getting the emotions out.
Here are some simple things that you can do to help the self-harmer:
- Ask how they are feeling
- Do not be judgemental
- Do not make them feel guilty about the effect it is having on others
- Let the person who self-harms know that you want to listen to them and hear how they are feeling when they feel ready and able to talk.
- When they do discuss it with you be compassionate and respect what the person is telling you, even though you may not understand or find it difficult to accept what they are doing.
- Do not give ultimatums such as ‘If you don’t stop self-harming you have to move out’. This is not helpful and it won’t work.
- Understand that it is a long and hard journey to stop self-harming. Be aware that someone will only stop self-harming when they feel ready and able to do so.
If you need to talk to someone, please use our need to talk pages. Trained Befrienders are there to listen to your problems in a caring and non-judgemental way. You can speak to them anonymously and in complete confidence.
When someone you love is self-harming, it’s confusing, confronting, frightening and the feelings of helplessness can be breathtaking. You might not understand why this is happening, but you don’t have to. I wish we could give the people we love everything they need, but sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we, the world, it isn’t enough. This is scary for you and it’s scary for them.
Whatever their struggle, there are things you can do to help. You can’t stop their pain and you can’t change the feelings driving that pain, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to fix anything. You couldn’t anyway, however much you want to. The healing is theirs but your being there is so important. It’s enough – more than enough – that you are a loving, gentle support that holds things steady and makes the world a little less painful while they heal.
If someone you love is self-harming …
There is always a good reason.
There is always a good reason the person you love is doing this, and it’s not about attention. The reasons will be different for everyone, but it’s generally driven by emotional pain. Whether it’s a need to distract from the pain, soothe the pain, distract from the need that’s driving the pain, or cut through the endless and exhausting cycling of negative thoughts – self-harm will be an attempt to meet an important need. That doesn’t mean it’s an effective way to meet the need – it’s just a way to try. Emotional pain is a faceless, nameless beast that breathes fire and confusion and shame. It can drive the strongest of us to take extraordinary steps to make it stop.
Judging and criticising will always make it worse.
People who self-harm are strong and brave and they want to get better. The worst thing you can do is judge . Self-harm is driven by emotional pain. When you judge, or criticise it makes the emotional pain worse, which will intensify the need to self-harm.
They know it doesn’t make sense.
Self-harm doesn’t make sense to them either. Self-harm is inflicting physical pain to release emotional pain. It’s not about the logic, it’s about the feeling, or trying to get rid of the painful ones. Some of our most human experiences and feelings are completely devoid of rationality and logic. But they are honest and real all the same.
Be open to being educated.
Don’t ask why. Ask what. Asking why is confusing because generally, people who self-harm don’t know why they do it. Instead, ask what happens when they self-harm. What feelings or thoughts come? What feelings or thoughts go? Be patient if it doesn’t make sense. The experience of having the conversation is as important as anything either of you can take away from it.
But if they don’t want to talk about it …
Let them know they don’t need to explain. Silence, words, let them decide. Let them also know that when they reach out, they don’t need to know what to say. They don’t need to say anything at all. You can hold them, listen to them, watch a movie, go for a walk – no explanation needed. Finding the words can be so exhausting, especially when none of the words fit.
It’s often not about one feeling.
Pain is a shape-shifter and it often moves beyond words. There might not be one dominant feeling that drives the decision to self-harm. Fear, hopelessness, sadness, shame, anger – one of them, all of them, none of them. It can be driven by too many feelings pushing to come out. Or it can be nothing – a deadness, a numbness, hollow space and an emptiness that feels unbearable.
No. They can’t remember how it felt last time.
When feelings feel big, the ‘thinking, rational part of the brain is shut down. In that moment, logic and rationality won’t exist. The brain switches to survival mode and in that moment, self-harm feels like the only way to get through.
They don’t do it to hurt you. Even though it does.
Know that this isn’t about you. It’s about what’s happening for them. They don’t do it to punish you or to get your attention. The vast majority of people who self-harm keep it a secret. If they’ve told you, it’s because they trust you. They trust you to love them, fight for them and stick with them through it. Know how important you are.
It’s something they do, not who they are.
Don’t call them a ‘cutter’, or a ‘self-harmer’. It’s something they do, it’s not who they are. It’s a coping strategy. We all have them. None of us are defined by them.
They don’t want to die.
Self-harming behaviour rarely comes with thoughts of suicide. People who self-harm don’t want to die. They just want to stop the pain to stop.
Don’t try to change them. They wish they could change too.
They wish so much for things to be different, that the longing can feel unbearable. There is nothing you can say that will give them more of a need to change than what they are saying to themselves. Be the safe, secure person they can come to when it feels as though the rest of the world doesn’t understand. It’s paradoxical, but the more we fight who we are (or who somene else is), the more shame, hurt and anger is stirred. Let them invest their energy in healing, not in justifying, or having to be someone different front of you. Understand, accept and let them know that who they are is okay with you. Let them know that you love them because of who they are, not despite it.
Ask what they need.
Do they need you to stay? Go? Listen? Talk? Find a counsellor? They might not know what they need and that’s okay, but let them know you’re ready to hear it when they figure it out.
And finally …
The compulsion to inflict deliberate physical pain on the self is confusing for everyone – for the people who do it and for the people who love them. People who self-harm don’t want to be hurting themselves and they don’t want to be hurting you. They just want the pain to stop. We all have our ways of dealing with pain but sometimes, the pain can become too much to be put back to small enough. If someone you love is self-harming, know that you don’t have to fix anything. The healing is theirs and you can’t do it for them – as much as you would if you could. What you can do is be there. You might feel scared, frustrated and so confused at times and that’s okay. Self-harm is a frightening, frustrating, confusing thing. What’s important is that you’re there beside them as the gentle, loving, non-judgemental presence that we all need from time to time.
If you or someone you love is struggling with self-harm: For Extra Support – When Being Human Gets Tough .
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Finding out the person you love hurts themselves is not easy to take, but you can help them to help themselves if you’re calm, supportive and strong. The Mix looks at what steps to take when your boyfriend or girlfriend self-harms.
I think my boyfriend or girlfriend self-harms, but I’m not sure…
Trust your instinct and if something feels not quite right about your partner’s behaviour then don’t be afraid to bring it up and ask them. Gently ask them how they are feeling about life and themselves, and bring up what you’ve noticed, sensitively. Self-harm is a very private issue, so talk to them first about it before telling anyone else.
You may feel angry, upset and confused, but remember that your partner is in a difficult situation too. It may be the first time they’ve been asked about it so take a breath, step back emotionally, talk to them gently, and be as objective and non-judgemental as you can.
“Sometimes gentle questioning can be appropriate, but bear in mind that self-harm may be a way of managing intense pain,” says Psychiatrist Louise Theodosiou. “A partner would need to make sure that the questions were asked somewhere private and that they had time to support their partner with any answers they may provide.”
The best thing to do is to listen calmly and let them talk about it freely without interrupting. Be respectful, caring and open-minded. Remember they may feel scared to tell you because they don’t want to lose you. If you’re worried about how to confront your partner then seek advice. You can talk to your GP, a counsellor or support group for specific advice.
Are they depressed?
“Many people use self-harming as a coping mechanism, which actually serves the purpose of keeping themselves safe,” says psychiatric social worker Karen Wright.
Self-harm is more likely to be a way of managing painful feelings and is not necessarily a sign of severe depression, threat of suicide or mental illness. It can even be a way to physically release inner tension. However, sometimes it can mean more. If you’re worried your partner seems very depressed, speak to your doctor or ring a helpline for advice.
Understanding their self-harm
“It’s important to remember that people self-harm for different reasons. It could be a long-term coping strategy, or an intense reaction to distress or depression,” says Louise.
Often your partner won’t fully understand why they’re doing it themselves, so it’s best not to push them too hard. Self-harming can become habitual, even addictive. Try to find out what makes them want to hurt themselves and help them work out what they could do instead as a distraction or an alternative.
“My girlfriend knows I self-harmed, but we don’t talk about it – she has a more serious history of it than I do,” says Leanne, 19. “I don’t feel we share a romanticised bond of two tortured souls against the world. As she reminds me, I will never know where she’s coming from because I don’t have a guidebook on human emotion. I feel close to her because I love her. And that has nothing to do with the scars on her body.”
Don’t make them promise not to do it again. A guilt trip won’t help anyone. It can even make things worse, so try not to place emotional demands on them they probably won’t be able to keep. This is about them, not you and your relationship. They need to understand why they are doing it and find their own ways of replacing self-harm. Try not to focus on the self-harm but about what’s going on behind it instead. If you get them to make a promise they can’t keep it may end up causing feelings of shame and, as a result, more secrets.
Encourage them to get further help
It’s a positive step if they’ve managed to open up to you, but talking to a trained counsellor or health professional would be even better. Encourage them to seek specialist help and offer to go with them if they’re worried about doing it alone.
Don’t push or threaten your partner with ending the relationship if they say no to further help – try and go at their pace. You could offer to tell someone for them or to find out more information. The only real way to recovery is for them to recognise there are other ways to deal with how they feel inside. Don’t ignore what they’ve told you. Be there emotionally for them as much as you can, but remember you have to be there for yourself too.
Here are some ways you can support a partner who self harms
Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health
It can be difficult to know that your partner is engaging in self harm. It may help for you to learn more about self harm so you can understand more about it.
Why do people self harm?
Many people self harm as a coping mechanism to deal with intense and difficult emotions. These feelings are often pushed down and eventually are expressed through causing physical pain.
- Self harm is often used to relieve tension or anger
- It might also be a way to let out feelings and to deal with sadness, stress, self-hatred or depression
- Some people find it easier to cope with physical pain rather than emotional pain
- Some people find that self-harming relieves anxiety and tension and helps calm them down when they are distressed
- Physical injuries are often easier to cope with than the invisible emotional pain
How can I help my partner?
There are a number of ways that you can be there for your partner if they are self harming.
Reach out and be willing to listen
One of the most helpful things you can do is to reach out to the person you care about and let them know you are there for them if they want to talk to you about how they’re feeling and what they’re doing to cope. Listening without judging can be one of the most powerful things you can do. People who self harm can feel a huge amount of shame about their behaviour and can find it really hard to talk about it.
If they feel that you are judging them, it may make things worse and they may feel unable to confide in you again. Listening without judgement isn’t always easy to do. Learn more about being a good listener here.
Avoid confrontations and ultimatums
While it’s important to talk to them about their self harm, it is key that you don’t scare them off by confronting them. While you are probably feeling upset, confused or even angry and want to talk to them about it, it’s vital to remember how they must be feeling. Instead of rushing in and making things worse, take your time and show them how supportive you can be by listening carefully and being non-judgemental.
It’s best to avoid confrontation, and avoid giving the person an ultimatum (for example, if you don’t stop self harming I’ll break up with you), as this is never helpful.
Guilting someone into stopping self harming won’t work, and research shows that forcing someone to stop self harming before they are ready is usually unsuccessful. Don’t take the fact that they hurt themselves personally as it really is not because of you.
Learn more about self harm
Self harm is a coping mechanism that is often used to deal with difficult emotions. Everyone self harms for different reasons, and in different ways so there is no one size fits all way of dealing with it. You can read more about self harm here.
Take care of yourself
It’s important that you don’t forget to mind yourself during all of this. Being with someone who self harms can be stressful as you might not understand why they want to hurt themselves. Along with that, it isn’t always easy to hear details about the things people do to harm themselves.
While it’s important to be there for them it’s even more important that you don’t forget to look after your own mental health and if things become too stressful that you are allowed to take a few steps back. You can’t be of support to anyone else, unless you are first a support to yourself.
Keep the communication open
Communication is pretty vital in any relationship but particularly one in which someone self harms. If you feel uncomfortable talking about self harm with them you might prefer if they speak to a mental health professional or someone with more experience in dealing with self harm. Remember that self harm is simply a coping mechanism that your loved one has learned to use.
Encourage them to get professional help
It’s great that they have opened up to you, but you are not a mental health professional so can only help so much. They may also need to speak with a therapist or a mental health professional for support. A really good first step is to visit a GP as they can refer you to other mental health professionals if necessary.
There is also the possibility for the person to attend a service like Jigsaw.ie. That service provides free mental health support to 12-25 year olds. They have centres in lots of places around the country and work specifically with young people so they will completely understand whatever you tell them.
Pieta House is a free confidential service that works with people who self harm or are suicidal. They have centres in lots of places around the country. To find out your nearest centre visit www.pieta.ie or by calling 1800 247 247 or texting “HELP” to 51444.
If you need to speak with after reading this article, then you can call the number below. It is open 24 hours a day.