Talking About Self-Harm: What Not to Say

Talking About Self-Harm: What Not to Say

Broaching a sensitive topic like self-injury can be daunting. On the one hand, talking is often an important part of the healing process, but on the other hand, it can feel a bit like trekking across a field filled with landmines. If you’re worried about how to talk about self-harm, here’s what not to say—and a few suggestions for what to try instead.

What Not to Say to a Self-Harming Loved One

I’ve been fairly lucky in that the few times I’ve disclosed my history with self-harm personally to a loved one, the experience has always been largely positive. But not everyone is so lucky, and I know how easily such a conversation could turn sour with just a few wrong words. While you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about self-harm with your loved one, there are definitely some areas to avoid if you can help it. Below are a few examples of what not to say to a self-harming loved one.

Don’t make accusations or place blame. As someone who struggled a lot with feelings of guilt and regret—even before I tried to talk to anyone about it—I can tell you right now that adding to whatever negative emotions your loved one might be feeling will only exacerbate the situation. Instead, calmly let your loved one know that you are aware of the situation (if that is not already obvious) and that you are here to help in whatever way you can.

Don’t try to force your loved one to open up. It is enough to simply say that you are concerned but understand if the time is not yet right, and that you will be there if and when the times comes that your loved one is ready to talk.

Don’t try to offer solutions every time you talk, either. While you can and should play an active role in your loved one’s recovery if you are asked to do so, self-harm is not a puzzle to be solved simply by putting the pieces together. Instead, ask first if your loved one would like some advice or just for you to listen.

Don’t threaten your loved one with ultimatums like, « If you don’t stop, I’m signing you up for rehab. » Hanging a deadline over your loved one’s head is adding like adding fuel to a fire—one that can burn you both if you are not careful. Instead, simply state that you are concerned and why. Even if the situation becomes critical, don’t make threats—but do get help by calling 9-1-1 or going to the hospital as soon as possible.

Disclosing Self-Harm: What Not to Say to Friends and Family

If you are instead facing the prospect of disclosing your own self-harming habit to someone close to you, know that you, too, have some considerations to keep in mind. Below are a few examples of what not to say about self-harm when disclosing your history to friends and family—and what to try instead.

Don’t make accusations or place blame. This rule is the same on both sides. Instead, try to frame your disclosure in terms of what you are feeling and what you hope to achieve. For example, « This has been really hard for me, and it’s not easy to talk about. But I wanted you to understand what I’ve been going through. » Or, « I’ve been struggling a lot, but I’m hoping by talking about it, we can figure out some things that will help me feel better. »

Don’t assume that your loved one already knows about your self-injury. Doing so suggests that your loved one should already know, an insinuation that carries with it various negative implications. Instead, simply explain the situation and allow the other person to tell you if your explanation is unnecessary.

Don’t say you want help if you don’t want it. It’s okay to want to talk about self-harm just to talk things out. Often, talking is just the first step on the road to recovery; it’s all right if you need some time to sit with it before moving on to the next step.

If you’ve talked with a loved one before about self-harm, do you have any other suggestions for this list? Feel free to share your ideas or any other thoughts you may have on this topic to the comments below.

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