Resources about Self-Injury
Self-Injury is the Self-injury is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It's not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, self-injury is a way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration
WARNING: Some content may be triggering
Message from Maggie:
A lot of people contact me because they, or someone they know is self-injuring. While the number of resources in the field have grown and gotten more accurate over the years, it is still very difficult to find non-clinical, de-sensationalized accounts of self-injury and associated coping mechanisms. I'll also be real, it's been a while since I've done a deep dive on all the fiction/academic/self help books oriented towards self injury. Since I'm not totally up to date, I've attempted to give my own advice/experiences/things I've learned here. I am not, however a medical professional or therapist, nor can I ever attempt to encompass the ideas/experiences/opinions of all self-injurers. However, if you have any other resources/ideas/advice to give, I encourage you to contact me and let me know.
Questions I've Been Asked About Self-Injury
Why do people self-injure?
Distraction- Personally, I often used self-injury (SI) as a way to keep from having to think about other things I had no control over. By focusing on how to keep my cuts secret, how to keep them from getting infected, and planning out the next time I was going to self-injure, I was able to avoid thinking about my sick mom, or my classmate's reactions to my being queer, or even a stressful calculus test. Self-injury was something I could control; all those other things were not.
To Feel Something- Many people report self-injuring as a way to feel something, when they get disassociated from their bodies or feel disconnected from the world, self-injury can be grounding.
To Relieve Emotional Pain- It seems backwards, but the physical pain that comes from self-injury can temporarily relieve emotional pain. Aside from the rush of endorphins that happens as a result of self-injury, the physical pain often allows the person doing it to break out of spiraling thoughts or severe anxiety. If you think about it, the moment you stub your toe- you're not thinking about your grocery list or work or the cute girl next door. Your thoughts are more along the lines of OHSH*TBALLSIJUSTSTUBBEDMYTOEANDITHURTSLIKECRAZYOWOWOWOW!!!
To Express What Feel Like Inexplicable Emotions- Sometimes words just don't cut it (why yes, I do have a slightly punny, potentially inappropriate sense of humor about all this). When things feel crazy, out of control, overwhelming, scary, etc. a lot of times words seem inadequate or the emotions just seem way too complicated to be explained in any coherent sort of way. But self-injury makes it pretty clear. And while it doesn't exactly fix the problem, at least it's something.
The Cycle of Shame- One of the more complicated things about self-injury (and one of the main reasons I wrote From the Inside, Out and put up this website) is that the emotions that compel people to self-injure in the first place can also be brought about by the act of self-injury. Por ejemplo- You feel bad about yourself or something you've done, you can't deal with it, you self-injure. You feel ashamed about the self-injury or other people's reactions make you feel even worse about yourself and your life, you can't handle it, you self-injure. And so on and so forth. That's why dispelling some of the myths about it are so important and why it's crucial to know that self-injury is just one of many coping mechanisms that people use everyday. I don't recommend it as a life-long activity, but it is no more shameful than drinking or eating or smoking or any other response to stress.
To Take Control Over Life- I talked a bit about this with 'distraction' and 'relieving emotional pain' but for many people, SI is a way of regaining control over things that are uncontrollable- or at least creating that illusion. When you're self-injuring you're in charge of how often, how deeply and how intensely you feel pain. It's a much easier and less complicated way to experience pain than having it sneak up on you and take over your brain against your will. Cause that's just rude! And pain should know better.
To Keep Going- One of the most common misconceptions about self-injury is that it's a failed attempt at suicide. While people who self-injure can become suicidal, SI by definition is actually the opposite. It's a way to keep going with life, to relieve emotional paralysis and make it possible to function day-to-day.
It's an Addiction- Yup. Like all those things out there that are bad for you, self-injury is addictive. There's a chemical release that happens in your brain when you experience physical pain. I'll leave the specifics of this to someone more neurology-savvy than myself, but long story short, it feels good. Or at least it feels better than what was going on in there before. If you figure out a way to short-circuit difficult emotions, stop them in their tracks (albeit temporarily) it makes sense that you probably won't want to sit through horrible feelings for any longer than necessary. Alas, like all addictions, the result is a build-up of lots of emotional turmoil that gets avoided and pushed aside which, in the long run, hurts way more than the initial feeling did. Whomp.
Because we're Bored, Scared, Angry, Anxious, Ecstatic, Horny, Frustrated, Upset or Tired. - You get the idea- there are lots and lots and lots and lots of reasons why people self-injure.
What can I do if I know someone who is self-injuring?
Educate Yourself- Chances are good the person who is self-injuring won't be able to put into words why they're doing it. Very often that inability to communicate is part of why they're self-injuring in the first place. So being able to learn as much about it from people who aren't them, can be really useful. It also takes the pressure off of them to explain and defend their actions, particularly since there may be people they've tried to explain it to who haven't responded so favorably.
Tell Them You're There to Talk about the Self-Injury or Anything Else- Providing you actually do feel equipped to do so, open the door for communication with them. This doesn't mean that every time you see them you ask if they're ready to talk yet. One tactic is to tell the SI'er that you're always open to talk but they should be the ones to bring it up when they want to discuss it. That way you're not pestering them, and also aren't only trying to help them when you see evidence of self-injury
Don't Only Focus on Getting Them to Stop- If the person doesn't feel like they want to/don't feel like they're able to stop- they won't. We can get pretty crafty about hiding our SI, particularly when we know someone is looking for it. Another danger is that someone gives up SI to please someone else but just ends up using another dangerous coping method to get by. If the emotional support and stability isn't there to give up SI for the person who is doing it, trying to make them stop is probably only going to make them feel more ashamed and be more secretive about it. This handily leads us into the next suggestion...
Don't Focus on the Act Itself, Focus on What the Underlying Problem is- Self-injury is a problem, yes. However, just trying to focus on and stop the self-injury isn't going to do a bit of good if the person isn't dealing with why they self-injure in the first place. You don't have to see scars to ask someone how they're feeling and don't have to reference them when you bring things up- often times that can put the SI'er in a defensive position since they've likely had to fight against misconceptions about the act of self-injury
Don't Let a Knee Jerk Reaction to Tell Their Parent/Partner/Sibling Override Your Common Sense- If you aren't at least 95% sure that the parent/partner/sibling is going to be able to approach the situation in a level-headed, understanding way, you might want to find someone else who can offer assistance who is at a bit more of a distance. When people get scared/concerned their child/friend/sibling is in danger, they can turn on emergency mode and do rash things. It makes total sense, but can often also escalate the situation. Try to find a therapist in your area who knows something about SI, check out the websites on the resource lists for organizations in the area that might be able to help. People who aren't already emotionally involved in the SI'er will generally be able to offer more objective, levelheaded support.
Put it in a Frame of Reference You Understand/Can Relate To- It's really hard to help someone you don't feel empathy for. And it's really hard to feel empathy for someone who is doing something that seems illogical. When I work with non-SI groups around this subject, I often ask them to evaluate the things that they generally do when they experience overwhelming emotions. Do you drink? Smoke? Eat? Spend a lot of money? Exercise? Cry for hours? What is it in the experience of those actions that feel soothing or comforting or stabilizing? Chances are good it's the same with SI'ers.
This Answer is Easy: Anyone Can Be a Self-Injurer- The media often spins SI as an 'angsty white teenager' thing that's outgrown once the teen finds sufficient help. But the truth is, people of all ages self-injure, people of all races and genders, I have a totally un-researched hypotheses that LGBTQIA people are particularly susceptible to it (as they are many other addictions). Some people do it for a while and stop completely. Some stop and then start up again, relapsing into old habits. Some struggle with it their entire lives. It's not just a first-world issue either. I interviewed a woman who went to Nicaragua and found a woman there, overcome with trying to keep a roof over her children's heads and have enough to eat, who self-injured in order to live her life. My guess is you'd be surprised about who we are. I was the happy, smiley blonde who never seemed to get angry or sad. I knew an incredibly tough African American football player who was a self-injurer. And a soft-spoken elderly man who always wore colorful hats. Not to get all creepy about it- but we are everywhere!
Word Up to My Fellow SI'ers
I wish I was welcoming you into a slightly less bizarro club, but it's important you know you're not alone and not the only one. There are thousands of us out there who have felt what you're feeling. The fear you might never stop coupled with the fear that you will; Trying so hard to stop that you have to literally hold yourself on the bed by the sheets to keep yourself from reaching to your side drawer; Feeling so relieved when it happens and feeling so stupid and angry later; Having someone beg you to tell them about it only to have them dismiss you later on because it's too much for them to handle; Snickering anytime people offhandedly say things like "Okay, scissors are over a that table, now who is going to be our cutter?;" The ridiculous combinations of long sleeves, pants, gaudy bracelets and wrist cuffs that are both fashionable and functional; The 'cat scratches' when you don't have a cat, the 'games of Frisbee' that you never played, the 'bushes you ran your bike into' in the middle of the winter; The inevitable awkward silence that happens once you break the news to someone that the burns on your arms aren't from the kitchen, but are your own doing; We know your strength and your passion and your oftentimes overdeveloped sense of empathy for the pain of others; You're not alone now, and you won't be when you're on your way to figuring out a life without SI; We don't fault you if you don't want to give it up quite yet, but we also fully support your efforts to try. It's possible. And more than anything, we know you are worth it.
I'm not in love with a lot of the resources available about SI, but here are some places with info on them that might be helpful to you in some way.
Self Injury Hotline: 1-800-DONTCUT
- Self-Mutilators Anonymous: Online and in person 12-Step meetings for self-injurers
- Cornell University Self Injury Recovery & Resources
- Self Abuse Finally Ends Clinic Website (with general info and resources as well)
- Self Injury Outreach and Support
- Adolescent Self Injury Foundation