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Guide for Family and Friends of a Self-Harmer

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    Introduction

    This section of my webpage intended to address the possible experiences of those close to someone who SI’s. You may be a spouse, partner, friend, sibling, parent, family member, teacher, etc. Whoever you may be, this section can help you better deal with the SI behavior of a loved one.

    Feelings You May Have

    Upon learning of another’s SI you may feel a large variety of emotions: shock and denial, anger and frustration, empathy and sadness, and guilt. I’m going to discuss these emotions in the following paragraphs.

    • Shock and Denial

      • Since SI is often carefully hidden you might have been shocked to learn that a loved one is hurting themselves. You might not have noticed any of the signs connected to SI such as the refusal to wear short-sleeved shirts, or shorts. Or the frequent “accidents” that there were always excuses for. But remember this, SI is a secretive behavior and is usually done when the person is alone and the injuries are usually hidden. But, also some family members or friends ignore or deny many of the signs. So, that when you do find out about the SI you are shocked.

        Denial is closely related to shock. It is often necessary for all of us to use denial to survive in this world where so much misery exists. If we were unable to deny or lessen the huge amount of starvation, wars, poverty, etc. we would probably be in a state of constant depression. But in the case with SI, denial is detrimental and can deeply hurt your loved one who SI’s. SI show’s how much emotional pain an individual is in and to deny the SI is to deny the presence of that pain. Denial may make that loved one feel that you are uninterested, are unwilling to help, or simply just do not understand. Therefore it is very important that you do not deny the reality of the SI behavior of a loved one and its implications. This may be very difficult for you to do but it is absolutely essential to respond to the SI so that you may be able to help the person who hurts themselves.

    • Anger and Frustration

      • Anger is a common response upon learning of a loved one’s SI. First, the anger may come from the many lies that quite often surround SI. Many SI‘ers lie about their behavior to feel less ashamed or to ward of other’s feelings of anger, disgust, or rejection. But when the lies are found out these are often the feelings that result. You may feel angry or disgusted because you were lied to. You may not understand the reason that the SI‘er lied and therefore may feel even more angry. The lies indicate distrust, and this implied lack of trust and openness between you and the SI‘er may anger or even hurt you.

        You might feel that the SI behavior is uneccessary, which might also anger you. It may be very frustrating to watch someone else hurt themselves. You might feel the need to scold the person or force them to stop SI‘ing. This frustration comes about from your inability to control other’s behaviors. No matter how much you may dislike what the self-injurer does, and no matter how much you might try to control what they do, you simply cannot.

        Self-injury is different from most other behaviors because the results are physically visible. This may cause you to feel your own helplessness in changing the SI‘ers behavior. Realizing your helplessness in this situation may also cause you to feel anger and frustration.

    • Empathy, Sympathy, and Sadness

      • Understanding how much another person hurts emotionally is good and bad. It allows you to help them. But it also may cause deep psychological pain within you.

        Empathy is the “ability to understand the perspective and situation of another. When you are empathetic you are able to enter the emotional world of another. You take perspective and see the world through the eyes of that person.” Of course it is impossible for you to feel exactly what another feels and to experience what they experience. But empathy may help you to gain understanding of the SI‘ers situation.

        Self-injurers feel a lot of emotional pain. Understanding this pain is very helpful when you are supporting and assisting the SI-er. But there is a negative part to empathy, that is the loss of detachment or “separate perspective.” When you are looking into and experiencing another person’s inner world it does affect you. As a human being you are often unable to stop this, so as a result you might feel some of the sadness and pain of the SI-er. So, empathy might result in sadness.

        You might feel sad for the person who SI’s. This sadness you feel for another is sympathy. When we feel sympathetic towards another person, we see them as someone worth our pity, which can be a condescending view. Empathy is a helpful emotion, but sympathy is not. Sympathy puts the SI‘er in an inferior position. When we feel sympathy we presume to understand how they feel and how they see their situation. A SI‘er might see their SI as a positive behavior that helps them survive. But from a sympathetic stance their SI might look like a negative behavior. So, basically sympathy and the sadness that may come with it are not useful; rather, it blocks understanding and “objectifies the person for whom you feel pity.”

    • Guilt

      • Guilt is the “feeling of remorse stemming from a perceived wrongdoing. When we do something that goes against our morals and values, our conscience supplies us with adequate measures of guilt. SI in a loved one may make you feel guilty. For example, you might feel that something you did caused your friend or relative to hurt themselves. Maybe you’re afraid you weren’t a good parent, partner, or friend. (Let me interrupt here! My parents felt this way and many of the parents I saw at the psychiatric hospital felt this way.) Maybe you feel that you didn’t offer enough love, support, attention, or affection. Or maybe you feel you weren’t around enough or didn’t listen enough. Guilt is often useful but in this case you might feel guilt that isn’t necessary, appropriate, or useful.

        You do not have the power to make anyone do anything. Your behaviors or actions certainly may influence the perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, and emotions of the SI‘er or anyone for that matter, but this is not force. Whatever you did or did not do you did not force the person to injure themselves. People always have a choice for what they do, even under the most extreme situations.

        This guilt you may feel is a normal reaction to learning of a loved one’s SI but it is not particularly helpful. It is more helpful to “surpass these feelings or remorse and regret and focus your energy in a more positive and useful direction. Talk with the friend or family member who self-injures and ask how you might help them. Wallowing in your guilt will only make you feel depressed and unable to act. You need to offer help to the self-injurer rather than apologies.

    To the Top


    Thoughts You Might Have

    Accompanying the feelings you might have because of anothers SI behavior, are thoughts that reinforce and support these feelings. There are a large variety of thoughts that often come when you learn that someone you love is self-injuring, such as:

    • “It’s all my fault.”
    • “You’re crazy.”
    • “You’re doing this to manipulate me.”
    • “I can fix this.”
    • “This changes our whole relationship.”
    • “You’re not who I thought you were.”

    When you look at these thoughts you might see that they are wrong, and could negatively influence your feelings. Also, imagine if you said any of these things to your loved one who SI’s! They would be terribly hurt or upset. Be aware of your thoughts so that you can stop them from contributing to a negative emotional response that might hurt the relationship between you and the SI‘er.

    To the Top


    What to Do, What NOT to Do

    As a friend or a relative of a self-injurer you probably want to help them, to ease their emotional pain. But, without the right knowledge this “helping” could hurt more than it helps the SI‘er. So, this section has some ideas on what you should do, and what you shouldn’t do while trying to help someone who self-injures.


    • Do Talk About SI…Within Reason

      • As has been mentioned before SI is an isolated and secretive behavior. Whether or not you discuss it, it exists. Ignoring self-injury does not make it go away. It may actually cause more damage, because, first of all, ignoring SI actually may help reinforce the feeling of shame surrounding the behavior. Many people who SI feel that what they do is so shameful that talking about it is a taboo. So, basically, the secrecy and feelings of shame are strengthened. Second, it can add to the factors that lead to self-injury. When communication is weak, there may be an increase in feelings of isolation and alienation - feelings that often precede an act of SI. So, therefore, by not talking about SI, you might actually increase the chances of your friend or family member hurting themselves again.

        Talking about self-injury is important. That may be a good start to helping a person who hurts themselves. You can remove the shame and secrecy associated with SI. And, you encourage communication between you and the SI‘er. You help create change just by talking.

        Something that might stop you is that you might not know what to say. Even though you might not know what to discuss, just be acknowledging that you want to talk opens up communication channels. Here are some questions and topics you might want to address:

        • “How long have you been hurting yourself?”
        • “Why do you hurt yourself?”
        • “How do you hurt yourself?”
        • “When and where do you usually hurt yourself?”
        • “How often do you injure yourself?”
        • “How did you learn to hurt yourself?”
        • “What is it like for you to talk with me about hurting yourself?”
        • “Does it hurt when you injure yourself?”
        • “How open are you about your self-injurious behaviors?”
        • “Do you want to change your SI behaviors?”
        • “How can I help you with your SI?”
    • But Dont…

      • Don’t keep asking questions if the self-injurer does not wish to talk about their self-injury. This is intrusive and unwelcome. This may cause even further alienation, make them feel even more alone and isolated. The SI‘er may eventually open up to you but this will be when and where they want to. Just, make sure they know that you are willing to talk and to listen to them and that you will try to be understanding and not judgemental. Until then, don’t pressure them.

    • Do Be Supportive

      • Talking is one way to show support, but there are many other ways to show it as well. A good way to determine how to offer support is to ask directly. That way, you know what kind of support to offer that is helpful. Also, being supportive is to keep your negative reactions to yourself. Making judgements or hurtful responses conflict with support. To help the loved one who self-injures you must put aside your negative thoughts and feelings for the moment. This is crucial if you want to help the SI‘er. You can only provide support by being supportive. I’m not saying that you aren’t going to have negative thoughts or emotions but that you must hide them. At a time when the self-injurer is emotionally healthy and you are not offering help you may, without being emotionally hurtful, express your thoughts and feelings.

    • Do Be Available- Within Limits

      • Most people who hurt themselves will do so when they are alone, so the more time you spend with the self-injurer the less chances they’ll have to SI. This is not saying that it will eliminate the behavior all-together. Offering your company and support can decrease the chances of SI.

        For many people who hurt themselves it is difficult to express or even recognize what they need. So, it is helpful to volunteer the ways in which you are willing to help. This way your friend will know when and in what ways they can rely on your aid.

        Forming boundaries may be necessary for you in any situation with a self-injurer. Boundaries are “the limits you place on yourself and others in interpersonal relationships- ground rules, in effect. They help you know what you can expect from others and what others can expect from you.” Some self-injurers have trouble with boundaries, possible due to events such as trauma and abuse. So as a result they might break your boundaries Because of this you might need to set and maintain clear and consistent limits with them. For example, if you are not willing to take crisis calls after midnight, then tell them. This way they know what to expect, what help is available to them. That way you help form a clear and consistent relationship. But of course there are exceptions in extreme cases.

    • Don’t Discourage Self-Injury

      • “Telling an individual to not injure him- or herself is both aversive and condescending.” SI is a way of coping for some people, a final attempt to relieve emotional pain. Many SI‘ers wouldn’t hurt themselves if there was another way. And even though there are negative effects they keep on doing it, which shows that often it is necessary for their survival. By making even the most casual of comments indicating that you want the self-injurer to stop their behavior you risk damaging your relationship with them and any communication you might have. Your friend or relative will continue to hurt themselves as long as they feel it’s necessary- whatever you say will not stop this. But the amount of secrecy and shame surrounding their behavior will grow. (Let me interrupt here: My mom demanded that I stop cutting myself. Since I don’t want to hurt her I still hurt myself, I just hide it from her.)

        Also, some people who self-injure actually hurt themselves even more in reaction to demands that they stop their behavior. “By imposing your limits on another, you create the potential for failure. Thus, some who self-injure will increase their SI behaviors in order to feel as if they have a choice about and control over these actions.”

    • Do Recognize the Severity of the Person’s Distress

      • Most people don’t hurt themselves out of curiosity to feel what it’s like. They do it because they are in emotional pain and it is the only way they feel they can cope. This may be difficult for you to understand, but it is important for you to recognize the extreme amount of emotional pain that self-injurers are in.

        One reason that some people SI is that they want to change internal pain to something external that they can treat. Wounds can be symbols for pain and suffering. It’s important to acknowledge the messages sent by scars and wounds. How much you understand your friend or relative’s pain and how much you empathize appropriately will make communication with them better. Don’t be afraid to talk about the subject of emotional pain. This way the self-injurer can talk about their internal suffering, rather than express it through hurting themselves.

    • Do Get Help With Your Own Reactions

      • Sometimes the behavior of other affects us so profoundly that we have to get help to deal with our own reactions. Getting help, possibly through therapy, could help you deal with your often disturbing or overwhelming responses to a loved one’s SI. You might find getting help for someone’s else’s problem strange but remember this: “The behaviors of others can have a profound effect on you. This effect is further strengthened by the mysteriousness, secrecy, and misconceptions about self-inflicted violence.” Therefore, getting help through therapy can help educate you on SI as well as helping you understand and change your reactions. Since learning of a friends or family member’s SI is often very emotionally disturbing you can get help for this.

        Asking for help may be a very hard thing for you to do. Remember that the self-injurer had the same problem. So, do what they did. Ask for help if you need or want it. Look for a trained professional, ask friends for support, talk with a religious counselor if you wish. (Let me interrupt once more. Make sure this “religious counselor” is not fanatically religious or too critical because it can make problems even worse. It happened to me.) Getting support for yourself helps you and the self-injurer. The more you are able to handle your own reactions, the better you will be able to help your friend or family member who SI’s.

    To the Top

     Credits

    Information from Scarred Souls by Tracy Alderman.

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Posted · Report

thank you for this information it made me interact properly with my girlfriend. thanks

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Posted · Report

I wanted to bring awareness to this issue because I encountered a friend who needed help with SI‘ing and I did not know what to do. This resource has helped me fulfill my goal to bring awareness and I will be presenting a powerpoint presentation tomorrow in class regarding SI. Thank you.

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Posted · Report

This will help me helpy daughter

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Posted · Report

This helped me better understand how my boyfriend might react to my reactions to his SI. I often feel helpless and it hurts me to see him hurting so.

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Posted · Report

I really appreciate this. My significant other and other half just recently told me about his urgest to self-harm per instruction by his therapist and I didn’t know what to do, so I’m online looking for information.

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Posted · Report

I’m an SI and I may show my aunt this page when I’m ready to. The reason why I wouldn’t show her this now is because when she found out that I self-injure she told me to stop. She seemed like I could stop whenever I want too. So, I want her to understand that it doesn’t go that way……..

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I found this article very helpful; I recently found out that my girlfriend cuts, and I am very grateful that someone took the time to create this page. I learned a lot about what I should and shouldn’t do to help her. Thank you.

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This is just what my mom needs to read to understand more about my SI‘ing. My mom suffers from depression and anxiety like I do, and I feel really guilty talking to her about my cutting, because it hurts her to talk about it. I think this might help my relationship with my mom and help her cope with her feelings about me as well.

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I have known that my baby sister does this for some time now and for some odd reason now that we dont live together i see it more. They say that once someone who SI’s starts to show their injuries its because its a cry for help. I am scared because i have always taken it upon myself to protect her and i feel i havent, and for those reasons i know i have made it worse. I ignored it, i guess i thought it was a “faze”. How ignorant was i? But now i have to be strong because i think i am the only one that is really taking this seriously. I dont even think she thinks its that serious, but maybe thats what she wants me to think to spare my feelings. When i make her smile it hurts, yet im happy to make her feel okay for just a moment, because i know she is in real pain and i cannot bare to know what that is like for her. I love her and hope to learn more about this so i can “talk” to her without making her pull away. I look forward to the day her wounds heal inside and out ) Thanks again!

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Posted · Report

I wish I knew of this a few months ago when my brother, who has suffered with depression for years reverted to self injury, even now when hopefully, he is recovered from the SI it still helped me deal with what happened.

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I’ve been cutting for 3 years and I’ve tried talking to somebody about it. It’s not as easy to talk about this as some people think. I trusted one of my coaches a lot, so one day I messaged them and I kind of hesitated at first in the message. But I told them, I wanted to talk to them in person and what it was about. The day I went to talk to them, yeah they ”heard” me, but I don’t think they were “listening” to me.  It was really hard to even talk about it or even mention it. But because of the outcome, I haven’t tried to talk to them again or anybody else. So I’m not really sure what to do about this situation anymore. And no, talking to my parents wont help at first because I don’t get along with neither of them. So the question often sticks with me, “What do I do now?”

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Posted · Report

I am directing my husband to this site. It has so much good info and I think it will really help us out. 

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Thank you! I am a student doing a project to try and get this concern out there and known more. The one line about your mom asking you to not hurt anymore so you can’t hurt her so you hide it better now left me in tears! You have touched my heart tonight!

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Hi! My name is Nora and I have a health project for my final exam in which I asked: What is the effect on the health of families and friends with loved ones suffering from self harm? This blog post answered my question almost entirely. Thank you for putting out such great information! This article honestly made me feel as if I were in the shoes of one with a loved one who self-harms. I really do hope that if one of my loved ones ever experiences self-harm that I will be able to apply these tips and support them through it all. I also hope that you are doing well. I sincerely hope that at least some of your loved ones have helped you with your self-injury in ways that actually help. I also hope that you have overcome your self-harm and are on the road to recovery! I hope you have gotten as much support and love as you deserve ) This is such a great post and I am sure that you have helped many in supporting their self-harming loved ones. Thank you for helping me so much with my project without even meaning to!

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Thank you, Nora! Glad the post was able to help. :)

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Need help for self-harm?

If you’re not sure where to turn, call the S.A.F.E. Alternatives information line in the U.S. at (800) 366-8288 for referrals and support for cutting and self-harm. For helplines in other countries, see External Resources.

In the middle of a crisis?

If you’re feeling suicidal and need help right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. at (800) 273-8255. For a suicide helpline outside the U.S., visit Befrienders Worldwide.

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Posted · Report

I just found out my 14 year old daughter self-harms. I used to do it and stopped about 10 years ago, I didn´t want to model such behaviour. I am devastated. I don´t “officially” know (as in, she hasn´t told me about it, I haven´t told her I know). I did find some writings of her stating she wanted to ask me to take her to a psychologist but was afraid of my reaction, so I made her an appointment and took her. So far, she hasn´t rejected the therapy, but we haven´t talked about it (at the psychologist´s recommendation)… as selfish as it sounds, I feel like I want to scream, and scream and scream… but I know I cannot make this about myself, she already wrote she hates me and that I don´t care about her…

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This sound like a formerly (or currently) self-harming parent’s worst nightmare. Good luck to you and your daughter. Remember, don’t be afraid to get some help for you (if this is financially possible) or have someone safe to talk to about this. 

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About Us

Welcome to self-injury.net. We are a support community for self-harmers and also provide information on self-harm, creative works, media lists, lists of resources (helplines, textlines, mental health apps, therapists, etc.), etc. We focus on self-injury but a number of other mental health issues are included.

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Hannibal