Self-Harm: What to Know and How to Help

Many of us know someone who has self-harmed. It is a very difficult situation to see someone you care about engaging in self-harming behaviors and not really being sure what you can do to help.

Many people may not realize that self-harm lies on a spectrum. It can be very slight and subtle self-sabotaging behavior like reckless driving or something seriously dangerous like physical cutting or burning. In any case, the underlying reason for the behavior that the individual struggling with self-harm feels that their emotional pain or tension trapped is trapped inside themselves and that there is no other way to let this pain out.

If someone who is self-harming has chosen to confide in you in some way, you have the chance to be a very helpful part of their recovery. This person is trusting you not to gossip or judge. You are definitely a person that makes them feel accepted. Most likely, it is a very difficult conversation to this person to have with you and they have probably kept their self-harm a secret for a long time. Don’t react right away in shock, anger or fear; you can acknowledge these feelings later, on your own time. All you should do is listen first and try to understand their perspective. Be supportive and encourage them to communicate more about the challenges they’re facing. Remember that people who self-harm are not trying to get attention and they are not crazy or dangerous. And when someone has been cutting or burning for a long time, warning them that they’ll get scars is anything but helpful.

If you’re struggling with self-harm and you’re ready to overcome it, you’ll have to address the reasons behind why you self-harm and then address the feelings and behaviors in a healthy way. What feelings are bothering you? Sadness? Anger? Shame? Loneliness? Guilt? Emptiness?

Finding a behavioral health provider who is experienced in helping individuals overcome self-harm will help you develop emotional awareness about what you are feeling and why. Understanding the connection between the feelings you’re and the ways you’re coping with them will help you overcome them. Paying attention to your feelings, rather than numbing them or self-harming, can be very scary at first. The truth about feelings though, is that the best way to release them is to allow yourself to feel them. If you let in whatever is bothering you without trying to fight it, without judging yourself or beating yourself up over it, it will fade on its own and turn into another emotion soon. Obsessing over or trying to repress bad feelings makes them persist.

Once the source of feelings behind your self-harming becomes clearer, you and your behavioral health provider can come up with alternative coping mechanisms that are more healthy and positive.

If you are self-harming because you have intense emotions you need to express, you can learn to paint, draw, scribble, journal, write poems and songs, write down their feelings then rip up the paper, or listen to emotionally charged music.

If you are self-harming as a form of self-soothing, you can take a bath or hot shower, cuddle with a pet, wrap up in a warm blanket, massage your neck or hands, and listen to calming music instead.

If you self-harm because you feel disconnected, you can call to chat with a friend (about anything), chew on something with a strong taste, like grapefruit or peppermint, or go to a self-help chatroom or website.

If you self-harm because you feel angry, punch a pillow, do vigorous exercise, use a stress ball or make some noise!

Some good tips for people who cut are to use a red marker to draw where you might cut, rub ice cubes where you might cut, or lightly snap a rubber band on your wrist, arm, or leg when you feel compelled to engage in self-harming behavior.

If you are struggling with cutting, burning or another form of self-harm or self-injury, call the S.A.F.E. Alternatives information line at 1-800-DONT-CUT (1-800-366-8288).

If you are suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  at 1-800-273-8255.


“Cutting and Self-Harm.” Cutting and Self-Harm. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2016. Retrieved from

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