What is self-harm or self-injury?
Most people think of self-harm as something physical, like cutting, that leaves visible scars. Or something drastic like a suicide attempt. But would you consider overeating, not taking prescribed medication per instructions, or being clumsy self-harm?
Self-harm is a coping strategy to help deal with emotional suffering. The point is to “express feelings you can’t put into words, distract from your life, or release emotional pain.” (from helpguide.org). And that the depth and severity of the scars is equal to the internal suffering. The website http://www.helpguide.org has great articles about self-harm that helped me understand that even though I wasn’t cutting, abusing drugs & alcohol, or putting myself in the hospital, I was still practicing self-harm.
Types of Self-Harm from helpguide.org
- putting yourself in dangerous situations
- driving recklessly
- binge drinking
- taking too many drugs
- having unsafe sex
My Definition of Self-Harm
Engaging in any thoughts or behaviors that cause harm and/or injury to the physical, emotional, and spiritual self.
- negative self-talk – verbally abusive or encouraging to hurt self/others
- putting myself in unsafe situations where I know the person I interact with is going to emotionally hurt me
- walking alone in dangerous parts of the city late at night
- scratching and picking at my skin, nose, ears, mouth
- ripping my nails and hang nails until they bleed
- having lots of “accidents”
- maintaining friendships and relationships with people who treat me badly and work hard to make me feel bad about myself
- Not eating or sleeping on purpose
- Relapsing into anorexia and losing weight
- spending money on stuff I don’t want
- eating food that makes me feel sick afterwards
Why did I practice self-harm?
- I practiced for three reasons:
- to feel like I had some control over my life (anorexia nervosa)
- to express feelings and thoughts I couldn’t say out loud but had to release in some way
- to punish myself for having these feelings and thoughts
Why do I continue?
- Self-harm works in the short term
- Self-harm is addicting and hard to stop once started
- Self-harm is so ingrained in my mind and body that I start using it without consciously realizing it
Have I tried to stop?
Yes. But stopping is difficult. And “giving in” to the self-harm urge brings up feelings of shame, guilt, self-hatred, etc. afterwards. That starts a downward spiral of its own. But most important, teaching myself and my parts to be conscious of triggers takes time and persistence.
Many times I used self-harm when I was dissociated so I didn’t remember all of it. Other times, the self-harm was so ingrained that I unconsciously used that first. Would not realize I used self-harm until after I finished. That still happens now, especially when I am sleeping or tired or switching a lot.
Now that I am not in a dissociative state as much, I try to find substitutions for self-harm coping strategies. And I use those instead. But sometimes they don’t work. Sometimes nothing but self-harm will help in the immediate short term because I desperately need relief and cannot use anything else.
I try to be more aware of my triggers and notice when the self-harm starts so I can stop and use a substitute coping strategy that does not cause harm. I also talk through episodes with my therapist to brainstorm ideas. Or I call a hotline for assistance to brainstorm ideas or process the feelings that trigger self-harm.
Self harm is a coping strategy many survivors use for a variety of reasons. I started using this strategy as a child. My parts have been using it just as long. Most of us work hard not to use self-harm anymore. But sometimes, the substitutions don’t work. Or I am not aware of the triggering event so do not realize I am using self-harm. Or that my parts are using self harm.
Helpguide.org has many useful articles and resources to explain this more in depth. And offer strategies for not using self-harm as a coping strategy anymore.