What to Do When You Feel Like Hurting Yourself:
Self-Harm And How To Stop
By Cheryl Rainfield, 2004
Note: A revised version of this article appears in Healing the Hurt Within by Jan Sutton (ISBN: 1845280369).
Self-harm is something that usually happens alone, and in secret. Those of us who hurt ourselves–or who used to hurt ourselves–may do it to:
- relieve great emotional pain and distress;
But ultimately, hurting ourselves does just that–it hurts us. It may feel like a temporary relief, but it ends up traumatizing us, even if we think it doesn’t at the time.
As a survivor of abuse, I used to cut for most of those reasons–and also because I was taught to use cutting to keep myself silent, and to keep from remembering. Within ritual abuse, my abusers also encouraged me to hurt myself because they thought it would help discredit me, should I begin to talk about the abuse I was remembering, and because they wanted to keep me in emotional turmoil so that I would be less able to heal. Self-harm helped me survive during the abuse, and for some years later; it kept me alive. But it also hurt me. Parts of me felt traumatized when I hurt myself, as if they were re-experiencing the abuse I endured. And while I haven’t cut for many years, I know that method of coping is still something parts of me think they can fall back on if things get too bad and I really “need” it — but this is just an emotional crutch to help me keep from cutting.
I have scars on my body that I can’t erase, and when I wear short-sleeved shirts, I often experience negative reactions, condescension, intrusive and judgmental comments, blatant curiosity, and rudeness from people who see my arm. This can be painful to deal with, and can also bring up old shame. Sometimes I wish I could just erase the scars–but they are a part of my history.
Self-harm is hard to go through. There is the emotional overload before the self-harm, and then the shame, self-hatred, and anger at ourselves afterward, and sometimes added depression or despair. And always there is the secrecy, and all the triggers or loaded emotion that that can bring up for survivors of abuse. Then there’s the actual physical pain resulting from self-harm, and the emotional pain that comes from having cared so little about ourselves that we could hurt ourselves so badly. Self-harm hurts, on every level.
So what can you do if you want to stop hurting yourself?
First, realize that this is a process. If you’ve been hurting yourself for a while, most likely you won’t be able to stop overnight.
It takes time to stop self-harming. It’s important to see each victory you make along the way, no matter how small it may seem, and to recognize the skills that you’re building, that will eventually help you to stop self-harming.
Second–and this was key in helping me to stop hurting myself–you have to care enough about yourself to stop self-harming. You have to be able to love yourself–even just a little bit–you have to see yourself as valuable, to truly know that you don’t deserve to be hurt, not by anyone.
It can also really help to have a therapist who can help you explore the reasons you self-harm, and support you as you try to find new ways to cope. A good therapist can be invaluable, and can help you get where you want to go faster than you might on your own. But you can also do this by yourself; it may just be a little harder.
It can be healing to talk to someone about your self-harm–when you’re ready and able to. This is especially important for survivors of abuse, who most often had to keep the abuse a secret, and felt shame about it. Self-harm shouldn’t have to carry the same emotional weight. Talking about your self-harm with someone you trust can help break the silence, shame, and guilt around self-harm, and prevent those feelings from reinforcing the self-harm. It’s a good idea to start slowly, and to choose someone you trust to tell. You may also want to prepare what you have to say ahead of time.
Discovering what triggers your self-harm is one of the most effective and important parts of learning to stop. Try to see the pattern in your needing to hurt yourself. There may be a number of patterns. For instance, do you feel like hurting yourself every time you’ve gotten into an argument with your parents or your lover? Do you feel like self-harming when you think you’ve messed something up? Do you self-harm when you’re feeling really hurt or upset? Do you self-harm to try to punish yourself, silence yourself, or distract from your feelings? Do you self-harm when a memory of abuse comes up that you just don’t feel like you can deal with? Write a separate list for each trigger.
Next, ask yourself how you felt when the trigger happened, and how you felt just before you hurt yourself. Were you feeling furious? Threatened? Overwhelmingly sad? Were you feeling unlovable, unworthy, like you didn’t deserve anything good? Were you feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or self-hating? Panicky? Desperate? Write out what you were feeling on your list. If you hear words or phrases that go along with the feeling, write them out, too.
If you can, take it even deeper. Try to remember the first time you felt this way. When was it? What was happening then? Does it relate back to something that happened a long time ago? Or do any of the phrases sound like something you were told? Making that connection may help you to understand why you hurt yourself.
You may also want to figure out what you really need, what you were trying to get by hurting yourself. For example, were you needing comfort, needing to express emotion, or needing relief from emotional pain? Write that down, and then write some other ways that you may be able to get those needs met.
Now, on your trigger list, write out as many things as you can think of that will help you to:
- Get out the emotion,
- Distract yourself
- Soothe or calm yourself
- Reach out to someone
- Do something fun, or do something that you enjoy
- Give yourself positive messages
Those of us who self-harm often hold a lot of self-hate, self-criticism, and anger turned inwards. We also often have low self-esteem. For those reasons, it’s especially important to give yourself–and to receive–as many real positive messages and as much reassurance as you can. You may want to write a list of positive messages that you need to hear, and keep that list near you for when you need it. Or you may just want to list things in the “give yourself positive messages” section of your trigger list.
Sometimes the list will work, and sometimes it won’t work as well. If you get through the whole list and still feel like hurting yourself, you can go back to the beginning and start again.
Here are two examples:
Trigger: I have a fight with someone. I raise my voice.
Feeling: I feel angry at someone else. Then I feel angry at myself, and scared. It
scares me when I’m angry. I don’t want to be like my Dad.
Connection: My Dad used to yell at me before he hurt me.
What I Was Trying to Get by Hurting Myself: Reassurance, knowing I’m not like
my Dad. Relief from my anger. Punishment. Stopping myself from being angry
at someone else.
How to Get What I Need: Ask my therapist/parent/friend/lover for reassurance.
Look at the ways that I’m different from my Dad, the way I don’t take my anger
out on people. Give myself permission to be angry with my father, and for
what he did to me. Learn that it’s okay to feel angry. Learn how to control and
contain my anger. Learn how to safely express my anger. Take a course in
meditation, tai chi, yoga. Keep doing things on this list.
What to Do When I Want to Hurt Myself:
Get Out the Emotion: Go for a run. Punch a pillow. Scream into a pillow. Throw a
ball against the wall. Tear up a phone book. Throw raw eggs into the bathtub.
Dance out the emotion. Write out how I’m feeling. Throw a sticky toy against
the wall. Listen to a tape of a thunderstorm, and yell along with it. Write a
letter to my father without mailing it.
Distract Myself: Listen to loud music with my headphones. Go for a bike ride.
Take the dog for a run. Watch a movie. Play a video game. Sing at the top of my voice. Throw some paint on a canvas or paper. Crunch a hard candy
between my teeth.
Soothe and Calm: Listen to some soothing music. Pat my cat or dog. Make a
warm drink. Reassure myself, tell myself everything will be okay, and that I’m a
good person. Find a way to smell something that makes me feel good–a
cinnamon stick, an orange.
Reach Out to Someone: Call my therapist. Call a friend. Call a crisis line. Go
online to a chat room about self-harm (or abuse or whatever is also big in your
life) and talk to someone there.
Do Something Fun: Go roller blading. Skip rope. Go for a run. Play badminton.
Positive Messages: It’s okay to feel angry; what’s important is how someone
uses their anger. I’m not like my Dad; I’m healing. I have a right to my feelings.
I’m very strong to even try not to hurt myself. I deserve to feel happy. I
deserve to have good things in my life.
Start at the beginning again, if I need to.
Trigger: I’m with my friends, and they’re all talking to each other, but not to me. I
feel left out.
Feeling: I’m afraid I don’t belong. I’m afraid I’m not equal, or that they don’t really
like me. I feel sad, alone, vulnerable, unlovable, unloved. I feel like hurting
What I Was Trying to Get By Hurting Myself: To see my pain, to know how
badly I felt. Comfort. Reassurance. Distraction from how badly I felt.
How I Can Get What I Need: Write out how I feel–write in my diary, write
poetry, draw a picture. Tell someone I trust how I’ve been feeling. Ask my
therapist/parent/friend/lover for reassurance. Ask for a hug. Ask a friend to
go out for a walk with me, or just to listen to me. Go to a movie. Keep doing
things on this list.
What to Do When I Want to Hurt Myself:
Get out the emotion: Cry, if I need to. Tell a friend how I feel, and what happened for me. Play sad music and sing along with feeling. Scribble out my feelings.
Scream into a pillow. Go for a walk. Write some poetry. Write out how I feel.
Distract myself: Read a good book. Watch a movie or tv show. Call up a friend.
Go on the internet. Play a game. Play with my pet. Do an art or craft project.
Soothe and Calm: Make a warm drink. Spray some lavender in the room. Hold my
teddy bear. Listen to fun or soothing music. Go for a walk and notice the
nature around me, notice the details. Have a warm bath or shower. Going to sit
by the water and listen to the waves. Listen to a tape of the waves. Pat my cat
Reach Out to Someone: Call my therapist. Call my friend. Go on a message board.
Email a friend. Write a letter to a friend. Call a crisis line. Go out in the street
and just smile at someone.
Do Something Fun: Blow some soap bubbles. Buy myself a treat. Read a comic.
Watch a cartoon. Put on the silliest clothes I can. Play with my cat or dog. Get
a pack of gum and blow the biggest bubbles I can.
Positive Messages: It’s okay to feel sad. I’m a good person. I’m a likeable person.
My friends love me. I’m compassionate, caring, intelligent, and kind; I’m a
person that I would like if I met myself. I deserve to feel happy. I am loveable
Start at the beginning again, if I need to.
Remember that learning not to self-harm is a process; it takes time. Maybe the first time you try not to hurt yourself, it will only work for ten minutes. That’s okay; that’s progress! You postponed hurting yourself for ten minutes. Give yourself praise for that. It really is something; you’re building your skills. Next time, maybe it will work for thirty minutes, and then forty, and then an hour. Soon it will be days, then weeks, and eventually you won’t need to hurt yourself at all. Every bit of progress is important–and it helps to recognize the progress you make.
What you’re trying to do here is not to suddenly stop hurting yourself–that’s pretty impossible–but rather to gradually reduce the self-harm; to bring in alternative methods of recognizing your feelings and triggers and dealing with them; to build up your options; and to increase your ability to recognize when you’re feeling triggered, and to move into treating yourself with caring and compassion, and gentle, healing ways of responding to yourself when you’re feeling distressed. This will eventually lead to your no longer needing to self-harm.
It’s also a good idea to give yourself lots of positive reinforcement every time you want to self-harm but don’t, or every time you put off self-harm just a little bit longer. You may want to give yourself a little treat, allow yourself to have some fun, do something that feels good–and really notice the progress you’re making. It all counts!
Know that you are not alone. Many other people have gone through what you’re going through–and many people are, right now. Sometimes it helps just to know that.
And please know that you do not deserve to be hurt, not ever–not even by yourself. You deserve to be happy, to have fun, and to feel all your feelings. And you deserve to love yourself.
©Cheryl Rainfield, 2004
If you like this article, you may post it on your website or use it in your print publication, as long as you provide a link back to my site (http://www.CherylRainfield.com), and credit me. I’d also really like to know where you put my article, but you don’t have to let me know in order to use it.