Why do people self-injure? And what can you do about it?

Have you ever seen a person with scars on their arms, and wondered what could possibly push a person to such an action? What could make someone want to tear open their skin and let the blood out?

Or do you look at that same person and think they are emo losers who are just doing it for attention?

This is something that the average person doesn’t understand, and I am going to try and explain it as clearly as I can. My words come from both personal experience, and knowing others who have gone through (or in some case still are going through) self injury.

There are two parallel reasons for hurting yourself, and they are both always present in some respect, regardless of the underlying issue.

The first, as predicted, IS a cry for attention and help. That doesn’t mean they are just trying to get attention. To hurt enough to be willing to inflict injury for attention is nothing to turn your nose up at.

Imagine not knowing how to express the words “help me” or “I’m in pain” because you know that no one will listen. Imagine feeling so lost in your own despair that you don’t believe that anyone gives two shits about you. Imagine trying to find the words to express the feelings that overwhelm you and shade your entire view as darkness and hopelessness.

Now, tell me you wouldn’t do anything you could to express to those around you that you need help. Words count for nothing in a world where mental health is brushed aside. Words mean nothing when your entire world holds no meaning. Actions speak, actions yell.

A cry for help should always be listened to, because the person crying NEEDS help. No matter how trivial the issue may seem to you, it is an insurmountable mountain to them.

The second is for the release of internal pain through an external medium. When you are hurting so badly inside that words cannot begin to describe it, how else can you express it? Especially if you have no experience, no knowledge, and no one you can trust to talk to?

Internal pain is so impossible to talk about, especially when the reason for the pain is your own mind telling you that you are worthless, that you are shit, that the world is terrible, and that no one cares. There’s no amount of justification or rationalization that can make those thoughts and the accompanying pain go away.

Saying “get over it” is a 100% sure-fire way to get the person experiencing the depression/anxiety/pain to never, ever, ever trust you again. Saying “just stop it” will do nothing but tell that person that you don’t actually care about the reason for doing the self-injury. Dismissing the emotions and actions of someone just because you don’t like the way it looks is dismissing the person.

(Lie to yourself about it all you want, you can pretend that your opinion on their emotions matters, but at the end of the day it doesn’t.)

Pain needs to be expressed to disperse. Pain that is stuck on the inside of a person who cannot find the words (or the confidence to use the words they have) festers unless it can be expressed. Sometimes there are non-harmful ways of expressing that pain, such as writing, art, or discussing them with a trusted person.

But sometimes, the pain is too much, or the person waited too long to try alternate coping mechanisms, or the coping mechanisms just plain aren’t working. Those times, that person might resort to self-injury.

Important side note: Sometimes the reason for causing external pain is because of an absence of sensation. This means that the person is so numb to the world, they have stopped feeling pain (both internal, and regular daily external) and they want to feel something. This is no less important or valid than wanting to express internal pain. This is infact the next step from having so much internal pain. Think of a time that you were in pain for an extended period, after a while, the pain becomes less noticeable and feeling anything takes a little more work than the day before. It is exactly the same in terms of internal pain. If someone has reached the point of feeling nothing, they may search out a pain sensation in order to remind themselves that they are alive, that they are real, and that they are not completely numb.

It is important to note that often (not always), if someone is injuring themselves superficially, they are actually less likely to desire to commit suicide. By finding a coping mechanism, no matter how harmful to the body, they are showing a vested interest in actually staying alive.

(Note: there are some individuals who use self-injury as practice, or as a method of “making it until their suicide date”, but in my experience – both personal and discussing with other suicidal/depressed/self-injuring individuals – these individuals are the minority)

This means that if you see someone with fresh cuts/burns/injury marks on their body, they are fighting to stay alive. They are fighting to defeat the negative thoughts, to express the pain, to cry out for help.

Someone who has no interest in staying alive will not cry for help, they will not leave visible marks, they will not leave any hints that they need help. Because they don’t want help, they want it all to end. They just want to fade away as if nothing ever happened.

So, when you see your friend/acquantaince/coworker, or a stranger on the street, with fresh injuries that are likely self-inflicted, say hello. Talk to them, ask them how they’re doing. But only do it if you actually care. Because you might just give them a little more strength to keep trying.

Self injury happens. Denying it won’t make it go away. Yelling at the sufferers won’t make it go away. But sympathy, empathy, attention, and listening to those around you can do so much to ease the pain of existence for each and every person you encounter.

You might not understand why they do what they do, but you don’t need to. You might not see why they are in pain, but you don’t need to. The why is often not important as the what. As in, what are you going to do to try and make that person’s life a little less miserable, a little less lonely. Even a smile to a stranger on the bus can change their entire day.

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