Self-injury is an uncomfortable topic.
It’s complex and messy and stigmatized and probably hits close to home for a lot of people. It’s easier to pretend it doesn’t exist or doesn’t affect our lives.
But the reality is, nearly one in four adolescents self-injure, whether it’s cutting or eating disorders or some other form of harm.
And while cutting and eating disorders might not be as common post-adolescence, I think self-injury just takes on different forms, like excessive drinking, sleeping around, smoking, or living an unhealthy lifestyle. We know it hurts us, but it helps us cope.
The truth is, self-injury is very real, and it’s very present, and people around us are hurting.
And it’s time we start doing something to help.
Earlier I talked about things you should do to help someone who self-injures. However, there are also things you shouldn’t do.
If someone you know is self-injuring and you want to help him or her, here are eight things NOT to do:
1. Don’t make it an intervention.
If they haven’t told you about their self-injuring and you want to bring it up, don’t make it a big deal. You don’t need to sit them down and be somber and have an agenda. Bring it up in a normal conversation. It will help the person feel more comfortable and therefore more willing to share. If you bring it up and they don’t want to talk about, try again a different time. Interventions make a person feel trapped, so they will either run away, become defensive, or shut down.
2. Don’t overreact.
If someone confides in you that they self-injure, again, try not to make a big deal out of it. Listen and ask questions try to act normal. One reason people who self-injure don’t tell other people that they self-injure is because they are afraid people will overreact. It’s normal to feel emotions, even strong ones if it’s a loved one, but there’s a difference between feeling normal emotions and making something a bigger deal than it needs to be. Just try your best to stay calm and listen.
3. Don’t make it about you.
Don’t talk about how sad you are, or how much it hurts you to know they self-injure, and don’t apologize for not showing enough love. If it involves you, it’s probably best not to say. Because when you talk about how sad or hurt you feel, you make the person feel worse. It causes them to feel more shame and more self-hatred. Now is not the time to express your feelings, unless it’s that you love them and care for them and want to help.
4. Don’t interrogate.
Ask questions, but don’t press. Let them share what they feel comfortable sharing. Interrogations, like interventions, either make the person run away, get defensive, or shut down.
5. Don’t assume.
It’s easy to assume things about why a person self-injures, what they need, etc. But every person and every story is unique. Treat them like the individual they are. If you clump them into groups like “cutters,” or assume that you know what they need because it’s what the internet said, it discredits the unique things they are experiencing.
6. Don’t treat them like a problem that needs fixing.
Don’t worry about fixing them. They aren’t a kitchen sink. Instead, focus on caring for them. Focus on letting them you know you love them and accept them just as they are, self-injury at all. Trying to fix them will make them feel like something is being stolen from them, or that they aren’t loveable the way they are.
7. Don’t force them.
To talk. To go to a counselor. To stop self-injuring. In order to find real healing, a person needs to be willing to seek healing. Forcing them to do things will most likely just cause added stress, pressure, and unhappiness, and might even make the self-injury worse. Encourage them to do things, but don’t force or pressure them. (Of course, there are times when a person is suicidal or causing themselves so much harm that you need to step in and force them to the hospital, a psychiatrist, etc. Here, I’m talking about the less serious, non-life-threatening forms of self-injury).
8. Don’t forget boundaries.
If a person needs help, it’s important to try to help them. But be aware of boundaries. Self-injury is an emotional, deeply intimate topic. So navigate the relationship with wisdom. I believe it’s nearly always best to steer a person towards a professional who knows how to navigate these issues. You can help, but be smart about it.
What do you think? What are some other things you should or shouldn’t do? Let’s talk about it in the comments.