Beyond the Myth
Many people have misconceptions about what self-injury is, how many people self-injure, and what self-injuries are like. Here are a few facts:
- Recent studies estimate that 1% of the U.S. population self-injure. That's 2 million people in this country alone.
- Self-injurers can be any age, race, gender, or class. Many people who self-harm are high achieving students and professionals.
- Not everyone who self-harms was abused as a child. Chronic invalidation --- constantly being told that your ideas and feelings are wrong or bad --- can be enough to trigger self-injury.
- Self-injurers are generally not psychotic and present little danger to others. Most suffer from a mood, anxiety, or personality disorder.
- Self-injury is not a failed suicide attempt. It is done to hold off suicidal feelings and relieve psychological and physiological tension.
- Medication may help, but in order to end self-injurious behavior, a person must learn other ways to cope with distressing feelings.
- Pressuring someone to stop self-harming is counterproductive. Ultimatums don't work. To stop self-injury, a person must be ready to endure the discomfort that comes with losing their major coping method and have a support network to help during the rough times.
- A person who self-harms is usually not trying to manipulate or upset others. Hurting themselves has become their way of coping with life's stress. As Louise Pembroke of the UK National Self-Harm Network has said, "If I wanted attention, I'd walk out in the street naked."
- Self-injury is often a means of coping to soothe an emotional need of some kind.
- When a person self-injures, they are using physical pain to ward off emotional pain.
- Self-injurers often feel inadequate or unable to trust anyone with their emotions.
- Self-injurers have trouble forming personal attachments, whether it's to have fun or accept comfort from another.
- Self-injurers typically have low self-esteem and may form attachments with abusive or needier persons.
- Cutting is an act of self-medication. When the body is injured, hormones called endorphins are released to fight anxiety, agitation, and depression. The chemical interplay can produce an addiction to the "drug" manufactured by one's own body.
How Do I Quit?
- Decide to stop hurting yourself.
- Make an appointment with a counselor to obtain help and support.
Things to do:
- Identify your stressors.
- Take a shower.
- Count colors in a painting.
- Do a surprising, thoughtful thing for someone else.
- Keep your mind and hands busy.
- Be creative.
Things to say:
- How do I feel right now?
- How will I feel when I am hurting myself?
- How will I feel after hurting myself?
- How will I feel tomorrow morning?
- Why do I feel I need to hurt myself?
- What has brought me to this point?
- I don't need to punish myself for someone else's crime/stupidity/insensitivity. Punishing myself won't change others or make the memories go away.
How Others Can Help
If you believe someone you love is self-injuring, ask about it directly. If he/she is evasive or unresponsive, tell him/her that you're concerned and are willing to talk whenever they're ready. Then back off. If necessary, get counseling to help you deal with the situation.
Here are some other things you can do:
- Educate yourself.
- Be supportive without reinforcing the behavior.
- Don't take it personally.
- Acknowledge the pain of your loved one.
- Regard self-injury as an attempt to communicate, not to manipulate.