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Trying to Explain Self-Harm to a Loved One

First, you should be incredibly proud of the work you have done to get to this point in your recovery. You know recovering from self-harm is not a one-and-done process; likewise, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. According to an article from Frontiers in Psychiatry, self-harm, also known as self-injury or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), has a lifetime prevalence of nearly 22%. There are likely a lot of complicated emotions tied up in the roots of self-harm that you are still processing and working through in recovery. Therefore, trying to think about how to explain self-harm and your experiences to your loved ones can be difficult.

Despite your doubts and fears on how to explain self-harm, it is important to remember recovery is not a solo journey. As Celeste Pietrusza and Janis Whitlock note in “Recovering from Self-Injury” creating and reaching out to a support system can be an invaluable resource for your recovery. Having a group of people you trust and can rely on can help reduce the feelings that have contributed to making you want to harm yourself. When you have a support system to trust in and talk to, you feel less alone as these intimate connections can help motivate you to continue getting healthier.

At The Guest House, we know recovery is a process, not a destination. Finding support in others is vital to building a life in recovery after treatment. There will always be challenges and stressors in life that you will have to take on and learn how to adapt to. Reaching out for support and getting treatment has given you tools to cope with and adapt to the stressors of life in healthier ways. However, you have also learned that long-term recovery is not sustained by coping tools alone.

Rather, you know reaching out for support from your loved ones can be an important piece to your success. We know that the idea of reaching out to your loved ones feels easier said than done. Often family and friends have difficulty understanding what you are going through. Moreover, your loved ones’ lack of experience can also make the idea of sharing your experiences feel even more daunting. While your loved ones may not be able to fully understand your specific experiences, with education, they can still be a source of strength for you.

Now you may question how to explain self-harm to your loved ones in a way that they will understand. Where do you even start to explain self-harm?

How to Explain Self-Harm to Loved Ones

You can help increase your loved ones’ awareness and knowledge of self-harm by breaking down what self-harm is. As Medline Plus notes, self-harm happens when a person harms their body on purpose. Self-harm injuries can range from minor cuts and bruises to severe injuries like broken bones. Many self-harm injuries can leave permanent scars while more severe injuries can lead to serious health problems. Some of the health risks of self-harm include:

  • Infections
  • Organ damage or failure
  • Nerve damage
  • Loss of body parts

While self-harm can lead to life-threatening injuries, it is important to note that self-harm does not equal suicidal ideation. Due to a variety of factors like terminology, self-harm and suicide have a complicated relationship. Thus, it is important to explain self-harm and its relationship to suicide to give your loved ones more insight into how self-harming behaviors exist in your life. Moreover, when you explain self-harm and its relationship to suicide, you can help alleviate any distressing assumptions your loved ones might jump to regarding your specific experiences.

In some cases, a person may use self-harming behaviors in an effort to avoid suicidal ideation. One of the key differences between self-harm and suicidal behavior is intention. Self-harm is typically always used as a coping tool to feel better. On the other hand, suicidal behavior is an attempt to end distressing feelings and therefore the end of life.

Listed below are some other examples of the differences between self-harm and suicidal behavior:

  • Frequency:
    • Self-harm
      • The behavior is performed often
      • Behavior happens off and on
        • Focused on managing distress
    • Suicidal behavior
      • Attempts happen less often
        • Focused on ending the distress permanently
  • Severity of injury:
    • Self-harm
      • Tends to be less severe injuries
        • Focused on damaging the body, but not to the point of medical need or death
    • Suicidal behavior
      • Injuries are more severe
        • Focused on ending life
  • Thinking patterns:
    • Self-harm
      • Less severe black-and-white thinking
        • Relies on self-harm as a coping strategy
    • Suicidal ideation
      • Engages in black-and-white thinking
        • Everything is divided into only two categories, good and bad
  • Method of injury:
    • Self-harm
      • Focused on only creating damage on the surface of the body
    • Suicidal behavior
      • Engages in lethal methods

Moreover, looking at the differences between self-harm and suicide-related behaviors also highlights the differences in the methods of injury. You can help further explain self-harm to your loved ones by providing examples of what self-harm can look like for different people.

Types of Self-Harming Behaviors

Besides the confusion about the relationship between self-harm and suicidal behaviors, there are other misconceptions about self-harm. Due to media representations including misconceptions about goth and emo culture, there is a misconception that self-harm is just cutting. In reality, there are numerous ways in which people may engage in self-harming behaviors. You can improve your loved ones’ knowledge and dismantle myths if you explain self-harm methods.

Listed below are some of the methods that are used to self-harm:

  • Cutting yourself
  • Carving words or symbols into the skin
  • Buring yourself
  • Hair pulling
  • Skin picking
  • Punching yourself or objects
  • Reopening wounds before they heal
  • Inserting objects into body openings
  • Breaking your bones
  • Inserting objects under the skin
  • Bruising yourself
  • Banging your head against things
  • Biting yourself
  • Scratching yourself to draw blood
  • Rubbing your skin raw
  • Drinking hazardous things

When you explain self-harm methods, you can help empower your loved ones to support your recovery. If your loved ones can recognize different types of self-harming behaviors, they can provide extra support on those days when things feel a bit more overwhelming. In addition, recognizing self-harming behaviors becomes easier when you explain self-harm signs and symptoms to your loved ones.

The Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm

You can explain self-harm signs and symptoms can look different for each individual person. Everyone’s experiences are unique to them, which can impact how you engage in self-harm. However, there are some common signs and symptoms you can look for to recognize self-harming behavior:

  • Having an unusual amount of cuts, scars, and or bruises
  • Fresh cuts, burns, bruises, and or bite marks
  • Scars seem to follow a pattern
  • Keeping or hiding sharp objects in unusual or unnecessary locations
    • Razorblade, knife, or scissors on a nightstand
  • Frequent hospital visits for accidental injuries
  • Talking about feeling worthless, hopeless, or helpless
  • Unstable and unpredictable emotional and behavioral responses
  • Conversations and behaviors indicate low self-esteem
  • Seem to have difficulty handling emotions
    • Difficulty managing life stressors
  • Relationship problems
    • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Difficulty functioning at home, work, and or school

In addition, it is important to explain self-harm scarring can come with its own set of emotions. Having visible scars from self-harming can bring up difficult emotions like shame and embarrassment. Thus, many people want to cover them up and in some cases, people will cover their scars to hide their self-harming behaviors. Some ways that you engage in covering different parts of your body can also act as a sign of self-harming behaviors. Listed below are some of the ways people may try to hide their self-harm injuries and scars:

  • Wearing long sleeve shirts and or pants even when the weather is hot
  • Frequent use of bandages
  • Flesh colored bandaids
  • Always having an excuse for the various injuries
    • A pet scratched them
    • Claims they are clumsy
    • States that they fell
    • Claims the injury is a result of them not paying attention
  • Applying foundation and concealer to unusual places
  • Wearing wristbands and bracelets
  • Avoiding activities where showing skin is common

Looking at signs like low self-esteem, feeling helpless or worthless, and withdrawing from family and friends highlights an important part of self-harm behaviors. Much like other mental health-related conditions and disorders, there are a slew of myths about why someone might engage in self-harming behaviors. As Saskya Caicedo & Janis Whitlock note in “Top 15 Misconceptions of Self-Injury” stigma has contributed to people thinking self-harm stems solely from things like attention seeking, manipulation, and enjoyment.

Many people hide their injuries and engage in self-harm not to manipulate others to pay attention to them or because it feels good. In reality, self-harm is an indication of underlying distress and is used as a coping tool to try to alleviate tension and distress. Thus, the signs and symptoms of self-harm showcase the need to explain self-harm causes to dismantle misconceptions and increase understanding.

Learning How to Explain Self-Harm Causes

According to the article “Self-Harm” from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), while self-harm is not itself a mental health disorder, it is often related to mental health disorders. Some of the common mental health disorders associated with self-harm include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders

You do not have to have a mental health disorder in order to have difficulties with self-harming behaviors. In fact, self-harm is often an indication of challenges in coping with difficult emotions. As noted in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, self-harm is an attempt at reducing intense distress. When you feel overwhelming negative emotions, you use self-harm to temporarily alleviate those emotions and enter a state of calm and relief to get through another day or week.

For many, the pain of self-harm acts as a distraction from those distressing emotions, and in some cases, self-harm can distract from suicidal ideation. You may also engage in self-harm as a form of self-punishment or anger toward yourself. In addition, you may self-harm because of difficulties in your interpersonal relationships or as a means of externalizing your internal distress. When you externalize your internal distress with self-harm, it is a way of communicating difficult to express emotions.

In many ways, self-harm is a way of asking for help with distressing thoughts and feelings that you do not know how to cope with. At the root of self-harm is a set of unhealthy coping skills. It may be a challenge at first for your loved ones to understand why you self-harm. From your loved one’s perspective, the behavior is confusing because it causes you more physical and even psychological harm. Yet, when you explain self-harm and its relationship to emotions, you can help them better understand your feelings.

With more insight, your loved ones can understand that distressing emotions are both irrational and difficult to recognize as unhealthy. As Hilary Jacobs Hendel states in the NAMI article “Why Some People Harm Themselves,” emotions like sadness, anger, and fear are important emotions that are deeply connected to your survival instincts. Everyone experiences difficult emotions like anger and sadness, and everyone has different coping tools they use to deal with those emotions. Coping skills are, in essence, the various strategies you use to reduce unpleasant emotions.

Thus, the coping skills you use can be either healthy or unhealthy. For example, unhealthy coping skills may include breaking or throwing things when you are angry. Whereas, healthy ways to deal with anger may include deep breathing to relax and using problem-solving skills. Self-harm is an example of an unhealthy coping skill. With support, unhealthy coping skills can be dismantled and replaced with healthy ones.

Reframing Recovery for Long-Term Healing

Now that you are ready to reach out and explain self-harm to your loved ones, you can continue the process of healing. As noted in the BJPsych Bulletin, focusing on the cessation of self-harm can foster unrealistic expectations about recovery. It is important to keep in mind that recovery does not have an ending, but is rather an ever-evolving journey across your life. Listed below are some of the ways you can expand your understanding of what long-term recovery can look like in your life:

  • Acknowledging that you may experience difficult thoughts and emotions about your self-harm
  • Learning how to adapt to and live with scars from self-harm
  • Recognizing that recovery is not a linear process
    • While setbacks can happen, it does not mean failure
  • Continuing to build coping skills for the future
  • Addressing other health factors
    • Mental health concerns
    • Physical health concerns

Worrying about harming yourself again or feeling bad about a relapse is understandable. However, with an expanded understanding of recovery, you can truly build resilience from harming yourself again. You can build resilience to self-harm when you see recovery as a process to continue to learn from throughout your life. Through the process of recovery, you have the opportunity to continue to learn and build on your adaptive coping skills for your long-term healing.

Fostering Lifelong Support Tools After Recovery at The Guest House

At The Guest House, we recognize that effective recovery knowledge that there are multiple stages of the recovery process. Recovery starts the moment you realize you want better for yourself and your life. Programs that have a beginning and ending mindset leave little space to address your specific experiences and needs for healing. When your specific needs are left unaddressed, true healing in mind, body, and spirit cannot happen. Programs that focus on stopping the behavior rather than addressing the root cause of the self-harm is a temporary fix that only treats you on the surface.

Meanwhile, true healing comes from building long-lasting management and coping techniques and sustainable therapies that match your experiences. At The Guest House, we are committed to providing healing at multiple levels of care. Whether you are just starting your recovery journey or you have been doing the work for some time, there is a level of care for you. We will provide the support tools you need to continue healing and building healthy communication with your loved ones wherever you are on your recovery journey.

Moreover, while reaching out to your loved ones and continuing to build healthy coping skills is wonderful, do not forget to take pride in all the work you have done so far. Taking time to acknowledge your work is just as important to your recovery journey as building healthy coping skills.

Talking about your self-harm with your loved ones is understandably difficult. You may be worried that your loved ones will not understand or judge you. However, reaching out for support can be a valuable part of your recovery journey. You can increase your loved one’s knowledge and understanding if you explain self-harm is an unhealthy way to cope with distressing emotions. Moreover, your loved ones give you a support network to continue learning and building tools to support your long-term well-being. At The Guest House, we know recovery is a process, not a destination, so we are committed to providing multiple levels of care to meet you where you are on your recovery journey. Call us at (855) 483-7800 today.