Just breathe out of your ears, it’ll be fine

This piece discusses self-harming, TW

This morning I read something that made me feel so sick I literally had to up and get out of the house for half an hour. It was a poem about self-harm, where the basic message of it was ‘rather than cutting or hurting yourself, just do something else instead’.

Oh, why didn’t anyone think of that before? Just stop, that’s the answer!

….

If anyone thinks for one second that someone who self-harms isn’t aware that self-harming is not the answer, then my friend, you need to educate yourself.

In order to understand why a person who self-harms, self-harms, it’s important to look at the reasons WHY they do it. Those reasons may be

  • low self-worth
  • a form of self-punishment
  • inability to express mental pain
  • or most likely, a coping strategy.

For a person who self-harms, particularly if the act of harming themselves is as a coping strategy, telling them to ‘just do something else’ is a bit like saying ‘just breathe out of your ears, it’ll be fine’. If a person using SH as a coping mechanism, it is to lower distress in an act called ‘a jump-off strategy’. Usually, a person will SH in moments of high distress – and reasons for distress vary from person to person. So for one person, a high-distress situation could be an argument with a family member, the stress of studying for an exam, a bad day at work, or just not being able to cope with whatever emotions they’re feeling. I think a big aspect of self-harm that people often overlook is that it is synonymous with the presence of mental illness. A person who is well does not typically want to injure themselves without there being some underlying reason for doing so. As humans, our natural instincts include that of an inherent desire to survive, which is why (on a basic level anyway) we feel hunger, thirst, tiredness, pain etc. When that desire to survive is compromised, the act of harming oneself is actually easier to understand, especially if SH is accompanied by suicidal ideation. The person who is engaging in SH is no longer focused on survival; they are focused on removing the feelings that lead them to SH in the first place. Unfortunately, with jump-off strategies, the relief from the feelings that drove the individual to SH is quickly replaced with guilt, or shame, or self-directed anger. It is an endless loop that a person who SHs often can’t get themselves out of, as ‘just doing something else’ doesn’t bring the relief they get from engaging in SH.

A person who is well does not typically want to injure themselves without there being some underlying reason for doing so.

 

 

Not only that – a person who has started SH has begun the process of turning mental pain into physical pain,  because it’s the only way they can express it. Telling someone to ‘just do something else’ without pinpointing the reason they engage in SH in the first place invalidates the feelings of the person who SHs. It tells them that their pain isn’t worth expressing. That may not make sense to anyone who has never self-harmed, but to a person who has or does, one of the main reasons they may do it in the first place is perhaps simply because they can’t express in words what’s going on in their head.

Additionally, it is no secret that the majority of people look at self-harming as a form of attention-seeking. I don’t understand this. Why would you want to attention seek by PHYSICALLY HARMING YOURSELF if there was no underlying illness or very very very (personally) valid cause for doing so? I’ve also heard of people saying that if you SH somewhere where people can see, it’s attention seeking. That’s incredibly untrue. While I don’t know much about (nor have I looked to see if there is a study on) the reasons why people hurt themselves in specific places, to say that a person who SHs in a place that is visible is attention-seeking is, undoubtedly, incredibly ignorant. It’s not attention-seeking. It’s a cry for help. If a person is allowing others to see harm they’ve done to themselves (whether that be burning, cutting, punching things; that does not also account for the fact that binge eating, purging or restricting, are forms of self-harming in themselves, and that the list of ways a person can SH is non-exhaustive) they are either a) asking for help in the only way they know how, or b) they are receiving treatment for whatever may have caused them to SH in the first place, and they are working on abolishing feelings of shame or guilt associated with harming, in addition to accepting what has happened.

It is very very very difficult for a person who SHs to see alternatives to SH. When a person reaches the point of hurting themselves, they are using it as a punishment. They may not believe they deserve to do nice things, like going for a walk or making a nice cup of tea or watching a movie and calming themselves in a caring way (these are all methods of self-care that can eventually help replace negative behaviours such as SH).  For a person to get to the point where good, kind-to-self behaviours replace negative SH ones, the root cause for the behaviour needs to be identified, and dealt with. The person has to believe they are WORTHY of engaging in more positive behaviours in response to distress or sadness or anger – and it is often the case that they do not. When a person in that mindset (remembering that the behaviours are not rational, but a person who SHs cannot see that in the moment, although they are aware of it afterwards) telling them to do something else is like saying

‘Oh your leg is broken? Just go for a run.’

‘Oh, you have no face? Just eat something.’

‘Oh you’re actually a cat? Just be a human.’

They may be stupid examples…but that’s kind of what people who don’t understand the reasons behind SH sound like when they tell others what they ‘should’ do. It’s an unfortunate reality that while people are so hyper-aware of the existence of illness, the existence of stigma is still so strong it hurts people around you. Nobody has any way of knowing how many people around them SH. Your brother, sister, girlfriend, boyfriend, best friend, cousin… any of these people may have or currently do, or maybe will in future, engage in SH behaviour. They can stop, and they probably want to, but they need to learn that there are other ways of doing it. Nobody can tell them how to do that – it’s a process that takes time and understanding, and potentially professional help.

I guess what I’m trying to say is be careful with your words. Be kind with the things you say. The poem I read may have been written with the best of intentions, but it was written in a way that suggested the author did not know the first thing about self-harming, and in essence was probably pretty damaging for anyone who may have been affected by it. We live in a world where google is constantly at our fingertips. WebMD offers a succinct explanation for what SH is. Look it up. Read stuff about it on medical and dedicated mental health websites and places that offer reliable accounts and NOT, for the love of god, on Tumblr. Form your opinions on it after you’ve learned what you can about it. Not everyone will be sympathetic (not everyone can be) but reading what you can about something you don’t understand anything about can be the best thing you can do, for yourself and for others. Understanding is the key to acceptance. Do what you can.

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