Self-harm is a common problem, though one which is often difficult to acknowledge, due to feeling ashamed or stigmatised. People often do not know how to respond when someone close to them self-harms because of fear, lack of understanding or simply not knowing what to say or do to best support the person self-harming.
Ironically, most of us self-harm to some degree – this may be through over working, over eating or under eating, over exercising, excessive drinking, drug taking, behaving recklessly.
Just like those of us who self-harm through more ‘conventional’ ways do so in order to escape from our feelings or reality, so too for those who self-harm through more ‘unconventional’ means, for example: cutting, over dosing, burning.
Why do people self-harm?
People might self-harm for a variety of reasons:
- It is a way of managing intolerable distress;
- It is often a vehicle for self-punishment. People who self-harm often have distorted beliefs/feelings about their own badness and use self-harm as a way in which to punish themselves;
- It is a way of escaping from or nullifying feelings that seem intolerable;
- It is a way of connecting with themselves – a way of confirming their existence;
- It is a way of externalising internal pain and chaos.
Although self-harm can feel like a never ending cycle, becoming aware of its function in our lives and acknowledging its role can help us reach a point where we’re able to move on. It can often be useful to think about how and when you self-harm.
Some people find keeping a mood diary helpful, whereby they think about and describe the feeling they experience just before self-harming, for example: sadness, shame, anger, shame. It’s also useful to think about the feelings experienced after self-harming, for example: relief, calmer, better for punishing self.
By understanding the emotional pressures and rewards which compel us to harm ourselves we can begin to find more positive ways to express our inner struggles.
The Function of Self-harm
It can be helpful to think about why you self-harm. There may be a number of factors involved, for example: relieving tension; self-punishment; it is a way of externalising your pain, making it seem more real; you want people to know just how bad you feel and don’t know how else to communicate this.
These are all natural ways to feel and don’t make you fundamentally different to anyone else, but becoming aware of our reasons can help us to tackle the underlying issues which affect our behaviour.
Alternatives to Self-harm
Speak to someone – this may be a family member, friend or healthcare professional. Sometimes speaking to someone professional and removed from the situation can be more helpful – particularly if family or friends struggle with your self-harming;
Make a list of the reasons why you want to stop self-harming;
Brainstorm and make a list of the things you can do other than self-harm;
Think about how you can self-soothe or nurture yourself. If this feels too difficult, think about how you’d comfort a child. Now think about how you can talk to/comfort your own ‘inner child’;
Do something loving to yourself instead.
Counselling for Self-harm: How Counselling Can Help
Counselling can provide you with a safe space where you can talk about your self-harming, without feeling judged or shamed;
I very much believe in the power of the therapeutic relationship, having experienced this in my own journey. I believe that having a therapeutic relationship which is consistent, where you feel safe and contained, can be a really powerful factor in enabling you to make sense of and tolerate distress and feelings that seem intolerable;
Counselling can help build up your resilience and equip you with more resources/tools to draw on;
Counselling can help you develop a kinder more nurturing relationship with yourself.