My friend is self-harming what should I do?

Some of you may have friends who are struggling with self-harming behaviors, and you may be wondering how to help them. I'll provide some tips for you on how to be a friend and a support to them.

iuri melo
iuri melo

My amazing friend, I'm grateful that you are here today and that you had the courage to ask this difficult question. I'm recording this podcast for two basic reasons.

  1. Some of you may have friends who are struggling with self-harming behaviors, and you may be wondering how to help them. I'll provide some tips for you on how to be a friend and a support to them.
  2. Some of you are struggling with this behavior yourself, and I would like to suggest some ideas and tips to help you respond to some of the challenges in your life, in a way that doesn't create additional pain, suffering, and harm to your life in the short and long-term.

I realize that this is a sensitive issue, and I will attempt to address it in a gentle, compassionate, and respectful way, and hope that you can treat your friends, or yourself in this same manner.

As a therapist of 20 years, I've helped hundreds of individuals who have found themselves feeling somewhat stuck repeating this behavior... this pattern, that they ultimately don't want to continue doing... that they instinctively know is not the solution they were looking for, but that in some way seemed to be providing them with some immediate relief.

These incredible people could reasonably and logically see that this pattern was not healthy for their body, and that it was not a long-term solution for them, and yet, it was challenging for them to stop. I can understand that it's a challenge to stop something that seems to be working... even if it's just on the surface.

These individuals would often tell me "I can see how this is just creating more problems for me, but it's hard to not go back to it."

I would often teach them that the brain is a pattern making machine. Your brain makes patterns from the day you are born, till the day you die, and it never stops, and if we can make a pattern, we can also unmake it, and more importantly, we can make new, healthier patterns... better decisions, better behaviors that can produce better and healthier outcomes for you in the short and long haul.

Patterns and behaviors that don't encourage embarrassment, shame, or regret, but that instead build your confidence, and that help you to develop a healthy pride in yourself and in your life. My friend, I care for you.

You are awesome.

You can begin those changes today, and little by little with some patience, help, and some effort you too can make some adjustments that will make a big difference for you.

I have one more brief thought that I want to share. People will often ask me, "why do people self-harm?"

Now self-harm can be a little complex, and several factors contribute to why they do it, but one of those has to do with emotional management. In other words, they self-harm to manage their emotions. So when they are sad, feeling anxious, hopeless, embarrassed, ashamed, in pain, feeling dejected, rejected, or just suffering in some way, they will utilize that behavior to manage the other pain they are experiencing.

Once again, I'm not sharing this with you to create harm, or for you to weaponize this information against someone else... please, please, treat others in a gentle and compassionate way... life is challenging enough. But can Ijust briefly and respectfully say... my friend, we cannot try to numb out, or run from, or extinguish sadness, fear, or embarrassment, or feelings of loneliness from our life.

These are not meaningless.

As challenging as it is to experience these hard-core emotions, they are a critical part of the tapestry of your life. In fact, I would say that experiencing the sadness will actually enhance your happiness. It's also important to realize that these emotions are signals... similar to a signal on the dashboard of your car that starts blinking... these emotions are saying... "hey, we need to take a look at some things." "We may need to talk to go to the mechanic and get some of these things fixed" (sorry i was still working from the analogy about the car - I'm not suggesting you go to the mechanic to address your emotional or psychological concerns.

These emotions may be signaling, "You may need to try something different," or "You may want to add or take away a couple of things from your life that just aren't working super well." We can't run and avoid these things. We have to go through it.

There's an old quote "work through what you go through." We have to face these things. Talk about these things. Seek out help and talk to others who can assist. Read about increasing your confidence, about being involved where you are, about how to connect with people better, about how to create a sense of achievement in your life, about how to manage bouts of sadness, or nervousness, or stress... you can do it. I mean it, you really can. I'm not suggesting perfection here, just a deliberate and pointed effort to take a step in this direction.

What do you think?

Wow, that was a little longer than I anticipated, but i hope it was helpful to you. 

With that in mind, here are some tips to help your friend if they are struggling with self-harming behaviors:

  1. Listen Non-Judgmentally: The first and most crucial step is to listen in a kind and gentle way. If someone is trusting you with this information, let them speak, and avoid making negative comments.
  2. Let Them Know You Care: In a genuine way, let the person know that you care about their well-being and even that you're concerned about their self-harming behavior.
  3. Encourage Them to Get Help: They may resist this. It's hard to open up to people about this. Maybe you can suggest that they speak to their parents, or a counselor at the school, or someone at the school or community that they can trust. If they're willing, maybe they would be willing to speak to a therapist about this.
  4. Suggest Resources: Invite them to Join SchoolPulse at your school, or they can also reach out to the 988 Hotline. Schools often have wonderful resources and people who care. Encourage them to connect where they are.
  5. Safety First: And this is a hard one... but If their self-harm involves severe injuries or poses an immediate threat to their life, you may need to contact a counselor at the school, or a parent. This is a tough and mature thing to do, but you can do it in a graceful and courageous way.
  6. Stay Connected and Be a Friend: Your kindness and friendship is the most valuable support you can provide. I'm not trying to place an additional responsibility in your life. People will often feel a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of others, and I'll often tell them, "You didn't start it, you can't stop it, but you can influence it." It's important to realize that you are not in charge of your friend's decision not to self-harm, or to self-harm. Be a loving and kind helper, but know your place. Avoid using ultimatums or threats, instead, be a friend that is kind and encouraging. Remember that you are not a substitute for professional mental health assistance. Your role is to provide kindness and friendship and encourage them to access the resources they need to heal.

Ok, now for those of you who may be personally dealing with self-harming... or what people may refer to as NSSI, which stands for Non-Suicidal Self-Injury. My dear friend, my heart and mind are with you, and I'm grateful that you are here listening to me. 

Here are some strategies that have been shown to work, and that you can begin to do today!

  1. Talk to Someone: This is a monumental step that requires maturity and courage. You can do this. Parents or family members are at the top of this list. Next I would suggest counselors or Social Workers at the school. You may also reach out to a trusted friend or adult, therapist, or support person who is understanding.
  2. Pay Attention to Things That Trigger Self-Harm Thoughts and Feelings: It's useful to do this on your own, but I dare say, it's even more effective with the help of parents or professionals who cannot only help you to identify those triggers, but also brain-storm some solutions.
  3. Learn & Practice Coping Strategies: Use our podcasts, and other mental health resources to learn new strategies and tools, and also, to deal with some of the challenges of your personal and emotional life. There are books, videos, podcasts, and amazing and loving people that can help you here. Let's build your psychological muscles, and your emotional endurance. It's absolutely possible.
  4. Create a Mini Safety Plan: Create a short and simple plan by yourself, or preferably with parents or a professional. I'm telling you, your brain works better when it has a plan... so give it a plan. "When this happens, or when I feel this way, I will do... this!" Write simple and specific things that you would be willing to do. For example, "when I feel like self-harming, I will simply walk over to where people are", or "I'll open the door to my bedroom," or "I'll take my dog for a walk," or "I'll reach out to a friend and try to do something fun," or "I'll watch my favorite show." There are a million things that you can do, create a short plan, and let that magic work for you.
  5. Limit Your Access to The Things You Use to Self-Harm: This is a basic law of human behavior. If you want to end an old pattern or habit, make it hard to access. The opposite is also true, you can work on making new and awesome habits, by simply making those more accessible and visible to you... like placing a guitar in the living room, or in your room, instead of the closet.
  6. Be Respectful and Encouraging with Yourself: Progress is the key here. Making an effort to learn, to ask for help, and to take steps toward creating solutions that are awesome in the short-term, and in the long-term. Be your very own motivational speaker, not your very own judge and executioner... know what I'm sayin'?

Ok, enough is enough. Btw, I realize that this may not be a particular issue for you or your friends. If that is the case, this is awesome.

These are basic skills that are meant to work with many issues, and that can help you to respond to the challenges in your life with an important perspective, and with the right tools that will give you the best outcomes possible.

I'm cheering for you my friends, now let's get out there, and be valuable to ourselves and others, and live deep, and suck out the marrow of life. Enjoy!