How to explain self-harm to someone who doesn’t

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm, “How to explain self-harm to someone who doesn’t”  could be potentially triggering.

How to explain self-harm to someone who doesn’t. Graphic Illustration of a person experiencing emotional anguish. Closeup portrait of the face.

Caption: "The root of why people self-harm is deep emotional pain." | Photo Credit: ©luvchieva / Adobe Stock

How to explain self-harm to someone who doesn’t understand it?

What is self-harm? “Self-harm, or self-mutilation, is the act of deliberately inflicting pain and damage to one’s own body.”  Psychology Today

How to explain why I self-harm?

How to explain self-harm to someone who doesn’t self-harm has always been difficult for me. Most health professionals tell us that self-harm is most often used as a coping mechanism and is not an attempt at suicide. This explanation works for me. I never self-harmed as a permanent solution, just a temporary way of feeling better – feeling less numb or in some cases, to feel numb.

When I am asked why I self-harm, my honest response is it is an act that makes me feel more alive, and more in control of my own situation. That’s precisely how I define it: a way to control how I feel, not how someone else makes me feel.

There is a song lyric by the Goo Goo Dolls that really resonates with me and why I self-harm. I know the song is from the City of Angels, but to me, he self-harms to make himself feel alive, because even pain is better than not feeling anything:

“And you can’t fight the tears that ain’t coming
Or the moment of truth in your lies
When everything feels like the movies
Yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive.”

I remember the first time I saw a television show that had a person in it that self-harmed. It was the Canadian television show, “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” In that installment, Ellie begins cutting as a way to cope with her life, and there have been other instances in the Degrassi franchise since.

The difference between Ellie and me is that she’s a high school student, and I’m an adult. Also, unlike Ellie, I never had others in my corner — people who were accepting or wanted to help.

The root of the problem: why I self-harm

There are several reasons why a person might self-harm or self-mutilate, but to be honest, there is no specific reason apart from people having negative or unhappy emotions. For me, it was always triggered during times I felt out of control. Whether someone was yelling at me, I’d messed something up, or I felt ugly or stupid – those are the times I would cut myself.

The root of the self-harm issue is deep emotional pain. I started probably in primary school, but I only remember doing it regularly once I started high school.

Image for article: How to explain self-harm
Caption: When I am asked why I self-harm my honest response is it is an act that makes me feel more alive, more in control of my own situation. Credit: ©luvchieva / Adobe Stock

There were a myriad of reasons why I self-harmed at high school, the most triggering was usually after a fight with my mother. I’m not saying she is the sole reason, but she was usually the catalyst that would cause me to engage in self-harm.

I started with pinpricks when I was younger, then escalated to razor blades, or anything I could get my hands on that was sharp enough to cut my skin. Like many others who cut, I would make up excuses as to why the cuts were there. I would say that a cat scratched me (I must have had a lot of cats), or I got caught in some briars.

It was harder to lie about some instances where there were uniform cuts, so I just hid them as best I could. Easy enough as a teenager. As I got into adulthood, those who knew were simply told that it was my business and my body and I could do what I wanted.

The worst injuries from self-harm

Cutting is never a suicide attempt, but accidents happen that can sometimes lead to a hospital visit. My two worst injuries occurred due to a loss of control: one was by cutting in a quick motion with a razor blade where I cut too deep and should have had stitches, and the other wasn’t a cut at all, but dropping a hot iron onto my arm. It only took a second or two to have a horrible burn.

There are a few movies that have cutting in them, like “Girl, Interrupted, but there is only one film I am aware of, which focuses specifically on self-harm: “Painful Secrets (Secret Cutting). The film is about a high school girl who feels like an outcast. She is ignored by her father and berated by her mother. After an episode of what seems to be disassociation, she has to be taken to the emergency room, where her parents are told that she will need plastic surgery to fix the scars.

This is not the norm, but it is Hollywoods’ way to show that accidents do happen. It does not mean that the person was doing it was trying to kill themselves, but they may accidentally cause more harm than intended. According to Mental Health America, in severe or prolonged cases of self-harm, a person may become desperate about their lack of control over the behavior and its addictive nature, which may lead them to true suicide attempts.

Image for article: How to explain self-harm who doesn
Caption: Self-harm may seem foreign to you, but seriously, we're just like you. Sure, there's a Lifetime Television movie out there about people like us, but honestly, we're your neighbor, best friend, and daughter or son. Credit: ©luvchieva / Adobe Stock

Conversations about why I self-harm

The most awkward conversations I’ve had about why I self-harm usually have less-than-satisfactory endings. For instance, when I finally told my mother that I cut myself, she called me crazy (her word, not mine!). Not exactly what you want to hear from your own mother. I wanted compassion and understanding, but that’s not what I got.

When my friends or co-workers would find out about my self-harm, I would hear things that were pitying or things like, “I don’t even want to know what you’ve been doing.”

The worst conversations are usually from the people closest to me. Often I would hear things like, “If you’re going to do that then I’ll hurt myself too” or “If you keep doing that you’ll have to be committed because you’re crazy.”

Again with the ‘crazy’ talk. What people don’t realize is that saying things like that actually makes me want to do it more. Instead of that helping, it only pushes me into wanting to do it just to prove that it’s my choice. It also makes me feel small or irrelevant, and that hurts enough to escalate the problem.

What not to say when I tell you why I self-harm

People who participate in cutting or any type of self-harm or self-injury don’t need to be told certain things, and there are plenty of things not to say:

You’re crazy

This is not only insulting but not true. While this is an issue rooted in our mentality, we are definitely not crazy (we may have a mental illness, but that is another story), and this only isolates us further and may cause us to self-harm even more. And seriously, if we were ‘crazy,’ don’t you think this would make it worse? 

And use of the word “crazy” is ableism

I’ll tell everyone you self-harm if you don’t stop

Again, this is self-serving and cruel. Outing someone who is harming themselves is not the way to make them stop and can lead to more self-harm. Besides, who wants to be a tattletale?

You self-harm because you only want attention

People who self-harm are not trying to get your attention -they are doing it for themselves. Hey, we’re selfish that way – it’s not about you, it’s about me.

There are many other things you should not say, like: just stop it; if you do it, I’ll do it; choose to be happy; and my least favorite, do you want scars forever?

Self-harm may seem foreign to you, but seriously, we’re just like you. Sure, there’s a Lifetime Television movie out there about people like us, but honestly, we’re your neighbor, best friend, and daughter or son.

"People who self-harm are not trying to get your attention -they are doing it for themselves"

If you’re not sure where to find help or more information in the U.S. on self-harm, call the S.A.F.E. Alternatives information line on 1-800-366-8288 for referrals and support for cutting and self-harm. For helplines in other countries, see Where to turn for help below.

If you’re feeling suicidal and need help right now call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For a suicide helpline outside the U.S., visit Befrienders Worldwide.

Article by
Karsun Hill

Karsun Hill, the author of "How to explain self-harm to someone who doesn’t," is a photographer and freelance writer living in Panama City, Florida.