In the last post, I seem to have listed every possible thing NOT to do or say to someone self-harming. So, to compensate, I’ve dedicated this post to being about what you CAN do to help self-harmers.
The way helping self-harmers works can basically fall into two categories.
- Long-term Supporters, and
- Short-term Supporters
Understand that there’s no shame in being a short-term supporter, especially if it’s because being involved in depressing, emotionally-needy situations for extended periods of time can be draining and discouraging. That doesn’t mean we ought to ignore them altogether—especially as Christians, we are called to meet the needs of others. But if you are easily triggered or negatively affected by emotionally-unstable people, being a short-term supporter is probably in your best interests.
For the long-term supports: you can have an immense impact on self-harmers, and even help them stop self-harming (without asking them to). With the list of Don’t’s in mind, here’s how.
Base the relationship on friendship, not self-harm.
The first requirement in helping your self-harmer is to be their friend. This relationship, however, shouldn’t be solely based on the fact that they self-harm. If you only care about their scars, you’re not really their friend—you’re just trying to be a hero. With my friend, Jake, we were friends before I self-harmed, so I never got the vibe that he was only giving me attention because of my problem. Instead, I knew he genuinely cared about my well-being.
Friendships were created to serve one another. If both parties are making an effort to be kind and serve the other person, both parties end up happy. This should be the focus of your friendship with your self-harmer—to look out for their best interests in kindness and love.
Relate to your self-harmer.
Learn as much about your friend as you can, asking them questions, just like any friend would, to see what you have in common. When it comes to deep emotionally-based things, ask yourself if and how you can relate to their feelings and experiences. If you do relate, communicate that to them so they know you understand.
Remember, friendship is a two-way street. You are not their doctor. You’re just their friend, and friends relate and help each other.
Establish trust and confidentiality.
Everything confidential between you and your self-harmer NEEDS to stay that way. Find out if they have trust-issues—which means you’ll have to be extra sensitive to that—but even if they don’t, being loyal to your word is imperative.
By building trust between the two of you, you become somebody they can talk to when they’re having trouble and need someone to comfort them, understand them, or give them a sounding board or outside perspective. This way, there’s a better chance your self-harmer will find healthy ways to process their pain.
Validate their feelings.
This ought to be something you do in any friendship, but it is especially important here. Self-harmers self-harm because of how they feel, quite often because other people tell them that what they’re feeling is wrong, inaccurate, or unimportant. Do your best to correct this by telling them what they’re feeling is normal and okay. Quite often people feel like they’re the only ones who feel the way they do—until they talk to someone else about it!
Jake never understood how I felt, because—unlike me—he comes from a functional home. He never told me what I felt was wrong, however. He overreacted to my self-harm, but he compensated by treating me normal after that despite it.
Telling people that what they’re feeling is acceptable helps them relax, process how they feel better, and eventually resolve it, rather than bottling it up inside due to guilt, fear or shame.
Offer to listen to them.
Too many people are great talkers and avid advice-givers, but terrible listeners. For instance, I am a great talker while my best friend, Jake, is a wonderful listener. He doesn’t interrupt me when I’m in the middle of a rant, and he comforts me by telling me I’m okay, and he doesn’t give advice unless I ask for it.
That’s too often what people end up not doing. Instead, they listen only until they “get the gist” of what’s going on, and then they’re giving advice they’re not credible for or would never follow themselves. Even if what they have to say may be helpful, it is quite often unwelcome by the receiver because it was not asked for.
The result is often the receiver shutting up and opting to find a new listener. For self-harmers especially, communicating what’s happening in their lives and how they’re feeling helps them process what’s going on, and is quite often self-solving. Hearing myself think out-loud or through writing is a huge part of how I resolve problems.
Be a good listener by asking gentle questions that encourage your self-harmer to go on. Ask for details about what happened, how it made them feel, how it made other involved parties feel, what’s going on in their minds now, whether it reminds them of other (painful) memories, how they plan to solve it, etc. At the same time, if you’re sensing resistance about giving up certain details, don’t press it. Move on and explore the information your self-harmer is comfortable sharing. This communicates interest in what the self-harmer has to say, and allows them the chance to get their heart off their chest in a safe place free of judgment or anyone bossing them around.
Be there for them.
This is one of the more challenging things to do as a long-term supporter, because it can be a full-time job. You may need to establish boundaries within the friendship about when you’re available to talk so that they don’t occupy more time than you can comfortably give them. What I really mean when I say “be there for them”, though, is during emergencies. What good is a friend when they’re not around when you really need them? Especially during emergencies—meaning when a self-harmer is triggered and wants to respond by hurting themselves—a self-harmer needs a friend to go to for help. When I was really not doing okay, Jake kept his phone on under his pillow all night just in case I needed to call him. I never took him up on it, but it was so comforting to know he was just a call away.
Ways you can be there for your self-harmer are:
- Meeting with them in person.
- Taking phone-calls
- Video-chat, texting, emails, Facebook, etc.
Walk them through their thought-processes.
If you get to a comfortable enough relationship with your self-harmer, they’ll welcome you into conversations where you both think through their thoughts together. Thinking critically and objectively about events in their life will help them see the big picture and may lead them to solutions. It’s important that the self-harmer is the one who comes to these realizations without you forcing them. It may be easy for you to see the big picture form the outside looking in, but from the inside out, and with feelings hurt, the view is much narrower and more biased.
- Think objectively by asking questions about other involved parties’ perspectives, or wondering to them what the situation must look like to an outsider.
- Think about how another person feels about a situation by pointing out there are two sides to every coin, and a reason for every reaction. Encourage them to give the benefit of the doubt, and to consider people innocent until proven guilty.
- By encouraging them to find solutions to the problems causing them to self-harm by discovering what started them, and how those things can be helped and healed.
- By encouraging them to replace self-harm with a different form of self-expression. This self-expression doesn’t have to be bad. There are many beautiful ways to express emotion, some of which are dancing, singing, music, art, journaling, exercise, or even just crying.
- By brainstorming with them ways to improve their life. Positivity is so important. Self-harmers live an often depressing, colorless life, filled with both highs and lows, but mostly just lows. People say that the little things make up the big things in life. Sometimes the big things are unchangeable, but little things, small additions any situation, can brighten a person’s day. Taking the time to go on a walk and appreciate the flowers and the weather; preparing good, wholesome food to remain healthy and feel good with; getting enough sleep; taking a break to read a book; listening to good music; watching a funny, uplifting or captivating show; listening to TED talks; reading inspiring quotations, or anything that helps them appreciate life and give them ample reason to be happy about something.
- Preparing them with a response-plan for the next time they’re triggered. It’s going to happen. Even if your self-harmer is in recovery, they’re going to at least be tempted to relapse. The best way to help your self-harmer with such situations is help them know what to do next time it happens, so they don’t panic and do something rash. A response-plan can be to go on a run as soon as the trigger happens, to call you or someone else, to pray, to journal, or something to transfer the energy their trigger causes them into resolving it in a healthy way.
Congratulate them for their clean-record.
A clean-record is the amount of days since the last time your self-harmer has hurt themselves. It’s important to congratulate them for however long they’ve not done it, even if it’s only been a couple of days. This allows them to be proud of taking care of themselves, and encourages them to response to triggers in healthy ways in the future. Emaline and I did this together sometimes, and it provided an outlet of positivity for our situations.
Don’t get frustrated when they relapse.
Remember, relapses are a part of the recovery process. It’s like breaking a drug addiction. The easiest way to do it is to slowly wean oneself off of it by gradually consuming less. While self-harming is more of an impulsive thing that shouldn’t be encouraged at all in recovery, it’s not something a self-harmer should be punished for doing.
Instead, make an effort to be proud of them for trying to recover in the first place. Staying in one’s current emotional place sometimes feels safest, even if it’s actually harmful. Change can be scary. Being willing to face one’s monsters and try to improve oneself and one’s life is a big step toward recovery, and is definitely something to celebrate.
Help them deal with their scars.
Some people, depending on their circumstances, may need help hiding their scars. I don’t encourage keeping dangerous secrets, but the public can be ruthless, and they’ll rat you out if they see anything that’s gossip-worthy. Hiding scars from unnecessary eyes can be wise, be it by getting creative with clothing or by using concealer or liquid foundation to cover them up.
On the other hand, some recovering or fully-recovered self-harmers need help uncovering their scars without shame. It’s important for them to know that scars do not define them and that there’s no reason to be afraid of what people think of them for having them. Showing scars is okay, and it’s something to be proud of for being brave enough to do.
Let them know they’re not annoying to you.
Communicate that you want your self-harmer to come to you when they’re feeling triggered or like they want to hurt themselves. People can sometimes get the vibe from others that they’re annoying the other person, which is definitely possible. What they should know, though, is that there’s a difference between being annoying, and dealing with an easily-annoyed person. Reassure your self-harmer that you’re interested in them and WANT to help them, should they give you the opportunity.
For the short-term supporters:
Be kind and sincere, and validate your self-harmer’s feelings.
Try to understand how they feel, imagine how you would feel in their situation, and tell them it’s okay to feel the way they do.
Tell them that they’re cared for.
Tell them you care about them, and go out of your way to point out the other people who love them and support them too. Tell them how obvious it is that they’re considered important and lovable.
Don’t treat them like they’re not normal people.
The only difference between a self-harmer and “normal” people is how they process their feelings…sometimes in more complicated, less efficient ways. Respect that about them.
Ask them questions about themselves.
Sometimes just venting can help a person process what’s going on. Giving them a chance to get something off their chest can help them clear their minds.
Help them find a long-term supporter.
Sometimes this just isn’t possible, but if you can point them to a friend you know is emotionally stable and who would be interested in helping, point them to them. Don’t go to the other friend and try to set them up. Make it the self-harmer’s decision to seek help. They won’t appreciate you tipping someone else off about them needing help.
Offer to pray for them if you’re religious.
This communicates that you care about them, and can mean a lot to people. It also can be very helpful, despite how overlooked this idea often is.
Be positive and hopeful about life.
Nobody likes a Debbie Downer, especially people who are already pretty down. Go ahead and commiserate with them when appropriate, but also make it a point to be a ray of sunshine in your self-harmer’s life. Point out all of the things to be happy and hopeful about in life. Point out that things will not always be the way they are. Help your self-harmer think about their future by asking them “Are you still going to feel this way 2 years down the road?” “What about 5 years?” “What about when you get married?” “What about when you have children?” This can help give them a larger perspective, along with a brighter, trigger-free future to look forward to.
I know I already made a list of things not to do, but as a supporter of any kind, here are some small things to avoid doing.
- Talk about a person’s scars in public.
- Tip people off about it.
- Make suicide or self-harm jokes (or eating-disorder or gay or racist jokes either, for that matter).
- Be obviously rude to a self-harmer because of their scars.
- Be abnormally interested in a self-harmer because you see their scars.
- Treat a self-harmer like they’re crazy.
- Treat a self-harmer like they’re naïve or stupid.
This does nothing to help and communicates that you are untrustworthy, nosy, and judgmental. It’s not anybody’s place to be those things, nor do your friends deserve them.
To Be Continued.