Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Myths and Misconceptions of Self-Harm

Since we’re on the topic of Controversy and Self-Harm, let’s continue on in this vein. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about self-harm. It’s important to dispel these myths and misconceptions because the longer they persist; the harder it becomes for people to come forward and heal from something so painful, and potentially fatal. Yeah, yeah, I know self-harm isn’t usually an attempt at suicide but that doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen. Especially when you consider you’re opening yourself up to infection and disease if wounds aren’t treated properly or dirty implements are used. I’ve done myself nerve damage that I didn’t intend because I accidentally went to deep. It’s possible to mess up. And when you're messing around with your body, your life isn’t something you want to slip up on.

Myths and Misconceptions

Self-harm is usually a failed suicide attempt.
This myth persists despite a wealth of studies showing that, although people who self-injure may be at a higher risk of suicide than others, they distinguish between acts of self-harm and attempted suicide. Many, if not most, self-injuring people who make a suicide attempt use means that are completely different to their preferred methods of self-inflicted violence.

Research into the underlying motivations for self-injury reveals important distinctions between those attempting suicide and those who self-injure in order to manage their stress and cope with overwhelming negative feelings. Most studies find that self-injury is often undertaken as a means of avoiding suicide.

I have had many reasons to self-harm in my life. Never, not once, was it an attempt at suicide. I have tried to kill myself, I have tried slitting my wrists (twice), mostly it was by alcohol and overdose though. The mentality I was in at those times was beyond self-harm. I was done. Self-harm actually became a way for me to hold onto my life. To reaffirm that I was alive, and to keep myself alive. While the actions may look scary, and similar, the intent is often the exact opposite of suicide. It’s life maintaining, not life ending.  

People who self-injure are crazy and should be locked up.
People who self-injure are no more psychotic than people who drown their sorrows in a bottle of liquor. For most who practice self-injury, it is used as a coping mechanism. However, it is a coping mechanism that is not understandable to many people and is not accepted by society.

People who self-harm are just trying to get attention.
You know what else is attention-seeking behavior? Wearing nice clothing, smiling at people, saying “hi”, going to the check-out counter at a store, and so on. We all seek attention all the time; wanting attention is not bad or sick. If someone is in so much distress and feels so ignored, or so incapable of expressing what is going on within them, that the only way they can think of to express that pain is by hurting their body, something is definitely wrong in their life and this isn’t the time to be making moral judgments about their behavior.

For some, self-injury is clearly an attention-seeking act. In this case, it is very important to honor the intent – if someone is injuring him/herself for attention then that person clearly needs it – this person is crying out for help. Just because they aren’t communicating in a way that is understandable to you, doesn’t mean they’re not communicating.

Sometimes bleeding on the outside is the only way we know to show how much is broken on the inside.

That said, most people who self-injure go to great lengths to hide their wounds and scars. Many consider their self-harm to be a deeply shameful secret and dread the consequences of discovery.  Although not overtly attention-seeking, hidden self-injury is still a symptom of underlying distress and it merits attention from others who are in a position to help.

For me, I always hid my wounds until they were completely healed. I wasn’t ashamed of them, but I didn’t want the attention either. I didn’t trust the people I had in my life and didn’t feel I had anyone I could turn to for help. No one understood, everyone judged. It was my way of coping on my own without risking putting myself into the hands of people I didn’t trust.

Self-inflicted violence is just an attempt to manipulate others.
Some people use self-inflicted injuries as an attempt to cause others to behave in certain ways, it’s true. Most don’t, though. If you feel as though someone is trying to manipulate you with SI, it may be more important to focus on what it is they want and how you can communicate about it while maintaining appropriate boundaries. Look for the deeper issues and work on those.

People that self-harm to manipulate others, are probably doing so because they’re being so ignored, so misunderstood, that they can’t think of a more constructive way to get your attention, or everything else they’ve tried previously has failed and this is the next resort. Self-Harm is a behavior. It’s the manifestation of a deeper problem. When someone is self-harming they have deeper issues that need to be addressed, need help getting better, but in order to get better, first, they need to get your attention. That’s not justifying the behavior, it’s just an attempt to explain that sometimes people don’t listen, don’t see the signs or ignore less extreme forms of communication. On the flip side, some people don’t know how to communicate their problems effectively.

If the wounds aren’t “bad enough,” self-harm isn’t serious.
The severity of the self-inflicted wounds has very little to do with the level of emotional distress present. Different people have different methods of SI and different pain tolerances. The only way to figure out how much distress someone is in is to ask. Never assume; check it out with the person.

I admit I can be occasionally guilty of this. I’ve had such bad injuries that I occasionally feel like people are just being silly whining about paper-cut like injuries. However, if the motivation to hurt yourself exists, and you act on it, no matter how severe the wound on the outside, the emotional wound is probably very severe.

Only teenagers self-injure.
While it is true that the majority of those who self-injure do so during their adolescent years, people of all ages practice self-injury. Cases of self-injury have been documented in children aged seven years or younger and a number of adults engage in self-injury, too.

I was 12 when I started to self-harm. I’ve only been free of from the behavior for 17 months. I was 29 the last time I injured myself on purpose.

Only females self-injure.
Studies show that 30%-40% of people who self-injure are male.

Only people with Borderline Personality Disorder self-harm.
Self-harm is a criterion for diagnosing BPD, but there are 8 other equally important criteria. Not everyone with BPD self-harms, and not all people who self-harm have BPD (regardless of practitioners who automatically diagnose anyone who self-injures with BPD).

It is truly important to remember that self-harm is not unique to the borderline personality disorder (BPD) community. It’s also important not to use the terms “borderline” and “cutter” interchangeably.

Borderlines don’t all self-harm. Those who self-harm are not all borderlines. And just as importantly, many people who self-harm aren’t “cutters” at all.

People who self-injure only do so by cutting.
Although a common method of self-injury is cutting, there are many methods of self-injury. Studies also show that individuals who report repeat self-injury often report using multiple methods. Examples of other methods include:
• Burning themselves
• Poisoning or overdosing
• Scratching themselves
• Carving words or symbols on their skin
• Breaking their bones
• Hitting or punching themselves
• Piercing their skin with sharp objects
• Head banging
• Pulling out their hair
• Interfering with wound healing
• Pinching themselves
• Biting themselves

Let’s see. For me I do favor cutting. Though, burning, overdosing, scratching, carving, piercing, pinching, and interfering with wound healing are all things that I’ve done.

People that Self-harm can just stop if they want to.
Self-harm can become addictive and habit forming. So like all addictive behavior, there’s more to it than “just stopping”. Telling somebody to “just stop it” will not work and could possibly alienate them further. They need help and understanding to recover, and learn other strategies for coping with emotional pain and stressful situations. I would even argue that Self-harm isn’t the real problem; the problem is what is causing the self-harm in the first place.

It’s hard to explain and I don’t want to romanticize this, but there’s something visceral that comes from holding an implement, and seeing how much your body can take. Seeing, actually seeing, that you are alive and that blood runs in your veins. It made me feel strong. Reminded me that I could take more. Felt like a literal release of the pressure that was building up beneath my skin. Maybe it was adrenaline. But afterwards I always felt more calm. Less in pain. When you walk through every minute in emotional agony, those few minutes of emotional neutrality, relaxation, are almost as good as drug induced high. To simply not feel the consuming emotional pain for a few moments can definitely be addicting.

Self-injury is untreatable.
Although self-injury can be difficult to control or stop, most people who practice it are able to stop at some point. There is, however, no “magic bullet” in the treatment of self-injury, as the behavior is most often a symptom of any of a variety of other underlying issues. Cognitive Behavioral therapies, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Group or Family therapy are those therapies most commonly used to treat self-injury. Anti-depressants or other psychiatric medications are also used to treat underlying depression or anxiety. Some who self-injure also successfully stop on their own, without ever seeking formal help. Because it is most often used as a coping mechanism, however, the practice of self-injury typically does not stop until the individual who uses it has other methods to cope and is fully ready to stop self-injuring – Although SI can be difficult to control or stop, most people who practice are able to stop.

Finding other methods to cope is important. More constructive methods. It may also be about finding a reason not to self-harm. I did stop after I started therapy, but that wasn’t why I stopped. I stopped because I didn’t want to have to explain the injuries. I didn’t other people to worry. I didn’t want to turn other people off or see the disappointment or concern in their eyes. I did it for the people around me, not because I felt it was something I needed to stop. Whatever your reason, find one, on that means enough that you learn something more constructive, because ultimately, the only thing self-harm does is leave a trail of scars behind for your to remember your way back to an unpleasant place.

Anyone who self-injures is part of the “Gothic” or “Emo” subgroup.
Ok, while I may be considered Gothic, if you call me Emo I’ll punch you in the face. This is not only stereotyping self-injurers, but it’s stereotyping two subcultures as well. Aye.

Self-injury excludes no one. People who self-injure come from all types of groups, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. People who self-injure may be male or female, rich or poor, gay, straight, bisexual or questioning, be very well or less well educated, and live in any part of the world. They may be “jocks,” “skaters,” “preps,” or “nerds.” Some people who self-injure manage to function effectively in demanding jobs; they can be teachers, therapists, medical professionals, lawyers, professors, or engineers. It is impossible to classify someone as a person who self-injures (or not) based on what they look like, the type of music they listen to, or who their friends are.

People who self-injure enjoy the pain or they can’t feel it.
Self-injury most often hurts. Sometimes feeling the pain is the whole point – a person may self-injure to reconnect with his or her body or just to feel something. There is no evidence that individuals who self-injure feel pain any differently than people who do not self-injure.

It never really hurt me that much. My pain tolerance appears to be much better than most though. It was the experience that I needed. That being said, there was definitely an element of pain, which was kind of the point. I sought out that pain, but I didn’t enjoy the pain. I didn’t derive pleasure from it. I found relief in it. It was a transfer of pain from one high concentration source, to one of less concentration which seemed to make it more manageable.

This is also why Therapist had me a little confused when she was checking to make sure that I wasn’t getting tattooed because I enjoyed the pain. First of all, I don’t (enjoy the pain - also, it just doesn't hurt that much, or at all). But secondly, I would self-harm because I needed to cope, myself, because I didn’t have anyone else I could turn to for help. Having someone else inflict pain doesn’t make sense when it’s something I do for myself.  

All people who self-injure have been abused.
Some people who self-injure have been abused but certainly not all. Reasons for self-injuring are varied and unique to the individual.

Someone who self-injures is a danger to others.
Self-injury is generally a private activity and many who practice it are accustomed to turning their anger and frustration inward rather than outward.

I’m pretty sure self-injury was about hurting myself. It was exactly that, relieving the problems I had turned inward. You don’t unblock the kitchen sink by poking a hole in the garage.

Can you think of any other myths or misconceptions about self-harm, self-injury, self-mutilation that I may have missed?


  1. Totally agree with the above. I'm male and was self harmming (cutting) since I was about 39. Can't explain it, somehow seemed what I needed to do to deal with self hate and guilt. Yep it hurt and I had a ritual.. Cleaning, cutting, bleeding and then baby-wiping (hurts more) and then hiding it all. Haven't cut for three years but I wouldn't say I never will again.. Just not in that place and hoping to stay away from it too.

    1. Congratulations on such a long time free from cutting. I hope you can continue along that path. I'm the same in that I can't say I'll never do it again, but I'm learning better ways to cope and I hope I never need it again.

  2. Thank you -- this helps in understanding. I knew some of it, but not all, and the personal touch helped give perspective.

  3. Thank you for doing this! I've been self harming for 24 years (since I was 9) and only recently started therapy to help work through some of the issues surrounding my inner pain. I'm so tired of the way self harm is portrayed in the media. It really does make opening up about this topic very difficult.

    1. I have so many issues with the media. A huge problem is that it's portrayed or talked about by people that have never done it, and therefore have no understanding of what it really is.

      If you've never been in a position to do something like that, your mentality just isn't programmed to accept that reality.

      Good luck on your work in therapy =) It's not always easy, but it's always a good decision.

  4. So I've never been a cutter or pincher or anything like that, but I'm curious if you think 'working out' can be one of those other methods. I've always been a workout nut, but when I get really angry, or really upset, I instantly head to the gym and work out like an animal, as heavy and as painful as I can, until I can't move my arms and/or legs the next day. The intense pain always feels like such a release.

    Again, I'm not a cutter and don't claim to be a self-harmer, but I wonder if it's even minorly related to this same concept. Thoughts?

    1. Hm. That's a wonderfully grey area of contemptlation. I also head straight to the gym if I'm really angry or upset, as an alternative to less healthy means of releasing that energy. It's a very constructive way to release aggression. I work out to the point of exhaustion, but not physical pain (unless you count muscle soreness the next day but to me that's just an indicator of a good workout). I think anything done to the point of purposefully causing yourself pain can be unhealthy and might indicate a form of self-harm.

      Then again, I'm a fan of tattoos which is purposeful subjection to pain, but it has nothing to do with the pain itself. It's the end result, the art, that matters. So maybe what it boils down to is intent. If you're working out to release anger and emotions, but don't go into it with thoughts of, "I need to do this to hurt myself or until I hurt myself," then the pain is a byproduct of your actual intent which IS a healthy way of releasing negative emotions. But because you push yourself to a point where you know you are probably doing more muscle damage than you should, it probably does have some relation. And I'd be willing to bet you have a good correlative understanding of what the after effect self-harm can do for a person.

  5. I Think what u have wrote can really clear the thinking and misconceptions some people have about self harm. I feel as if it is a way of releasing anger sadness disappoint all the horrible feelings a person can have. At the same time I think it should be watched carefully because if left untreated it could possibly turn into much more serious

  6. Thank you for putting this out for people, like myself, who self harms. I am also having to do an argue research essay for my college english class and self harm is something i want others to be aware of and drop the notions and misconceptions of it.

  7. Thank you for putting into words my thought and experiences about self harm. I'm almost 50 and feel like I should have grown out of this by now. Although I've been clean for a over a year now, the urges are still a constant struggle.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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