Helpful Responses To Someone Who's Self-Harmed

by Cheryl Rainfield, 2011

If you care about the person who’s self-harmed, and you’ve never experienced self-harm before, you may find yourself feeling nervous, anxious, or even scared. You don’t want to see them get hurt, and your immediate response may be to shut them down.

But someone who uses self-harm is already hurting, often unbearably, on an emotional and psychological level. And if they told you themelves, then they are showing you a lot of trust.

Instead of trying to stop them by shaming them or trying to control them, here is what will help:

  • Come from a place of compassion;
  • Understand that self-harm is NOT acting out, manipulation, or a failed suicide attempt; the person is usually trying to cope with deep and overwhelming emotional distress, pain, and often abuse or trauma;
  • Do not blame, accuse, punish, or threaten; those things only make it worse;
  • Ask why—and listen to the answer. Try to understand and not judge;
  • Ask what the person needs;
  • Educate yourself about self-harm (check out the Secret Shame website, a fantastic resource. You may also want to read my books SCARS for a deep understanding of the many reasons why someone might cut, or read some of the other articles on my site. If you find them helpful, I hope you’ll also pass them along to the person you know who’s self-harming. They need to know that they’re not alone.);
  • Make sure the person has support. Give her/him a list of helpful crisis and support lines that they can call, text, chat, or email. I recommend, especially for survivors of rape and sexual abuse, and CrisisTextLine for many helpful support lines. Encourage them to see a therapist or social worker if they can;
  • Help the person find alternatives to self-harm—when they tell you they want to. Distraction in safe ways can be a fantastic technique to help get through when things are hard. See this article by therapist Jo-Anne Beggs for some ideas;
  • Make concrete offers of help (give a meal, go to a movie with them, etc.);
  • Listen, and offer a supportive ear, or help them get support;
  • Know your own limits, and don’t give more than you can.
  • Let them know the things you like about them. It may sound small, but people who self-harm or who have been abused need to learn to love and appreciate themselves, and need to hear good things about themselves often. Eventually it will go in there more.

Written by Cheryl Rainfield, author of Scars, a teen novel about a girl who self-harms to cope with abuse.

Download Helpful Responses to Someone Who’s Self-Harmed.

Updated September 2020

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