The other day I was sitting in my office, hearing a conversation going on in the front lobby. Several women were discussing someone they know who engages in self-harming behavior. One of the comments was, “She does it when she wants attention.” It was all I could do to remain in my chair; I wanted to go out and correct her, but it was not my conversation and would not have done any good.
Have you ever read an on-line article that so perfectly captured what you want to say in as few words as possible, that you wanted to copy and paste (even with citations)? I found such an article on self-harming behavior at HelpGuide.org: Cutting and Self Harm. While I write briefly about self-harming here, they cover it much better. Please go there if you have any interest in the topic whatsoever.
Self-harming is not attention-seeking behavior. In fact, most people (females and males) do it in secret because they are ashamed of it or do not want to be looked at askance. Children and adults who do it are not crazy or dangerous — they are experiencing anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD just like millions of other people. They are not trying to kill themselves, they are trying to cope. In fact, this may be a coping mechanism that helps them go on living. The amount or type of self-injury does not indicate the depth of their pain; even minor scratches can indicate a need for serious help. Self-harming is often done by cutting, but it can also involve burning and other forms of self-injury.
Why do people self harm? It helps them cope. It helps them express emotions they can’t put into words; release tension; feel more in control (when life feels out of control); distracts them from thoughts, feelings, and situations; relieves guilt/punishes themselves; and for people who have dealt with circumstances by numbing out, it helps them feel alive again. It’s not a healthy coping mechanism, but as long as they keep the process clean and treat the wounds, it is probably less unhealthy than smoking a cigarette. While the mechanism can be safely managed, it is the underlying emotional and psychological pain that worries me.
There are healthier things you can do to help yourself if you self-harm. First, it can help to confide in someone. Be sure it is someone you can trust, who won’t gossip about you or start constantly telling you what to do. Would probably be a good idea to talk with an adult who is more removed from what is going on (a teacher, counselor, or therapist), and won’t freak out by what you disclose. Second, figure out why you self-harm. What are the emotions or situations that trigger your self-harming behavior? Third, figure out healthier ways to cope with those emotions and situations. That’s where it helps to figure out what you hope to accomplish with the self-harm — to express intense emotions, to calm and soothe, to feel more alive, to release tension, or whatever. I remember a client who felt soothed by the sight of her blood. Drawing on herself with a red marker didn’t do it, nor did scraping an ice-cube over her skin. But when she froze beet juice with a little flour mixed in to thicken it, and rubbed that across her skin, the thick, red liquid satisfied her need. Finally, you may need professional help to overcome the self-harm habit, and perhaps deal with the underlying issues. This is something I would strongly urge, but I do recognize that therapy is not always an option.
It is important to remember you are not alone. You can get help for the self-harming, and for the emotions and situations that have created the need. If you know or suspect you know someone who self-harms, I suggest again you visit the site I mentioned above. If you self-harm, visit that site. There is also a hotline for help: (800) 366-8288 (in the U.S.). There are people who care.
May you be safe.