Common Myths about Self-Injury

Given that March 1st is Self-Injury Awareness Day, I want to share this list of common myths about SI compiled by the American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse.

Did you think any of these things were true? Have others responded to your self-injury based on these myths?

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.

People who self-injure are crazy and should be locked up.
Tracy Alderman, Ph.D., author of The Scarred Soul, addressed this:

“Fear can lead to dangerous overreactions. In dealing with clients who hurt themselves, you will probably feel fear. . . . Hospitalizing clients for self-inflicted violence is one such form of overreaction. Many therapists, because they do not possess an adequate understanding of SIV, will use extreme measures to assure (they think) their clients’ best interests. However, few people who self-injure need to be hospitalized or institutionalized. The vast majority of self-inflicted wounds are neither life threatening nor require medical treatment. Hospitalizing a client involuntarily for these issues can be damaging in several ways. Because SIV is closely related to feelings of lack of control and overwhelming emotional states, placing someone in a setting that by its nature evokes these feelings is very likely to make matters worse, and may lead to an incident of SIV. In addition, involuntary hospitalization often affects the therapeutic relationship in negative ways, eroding trust, communication, rapport, and honesty. Caution should be used when assessing a client’s level of threat to self or others. In most cases, SIV is not life threatening. . . . Because SIV is so misunderstood, clinicians often overreact and provide treatment that is contraindicated.

People who self-harm are just trying to get attention.
A wise friend once emailed me a list of attention-seeking behaviors: 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 feel so ignored that the only way he can think of to express his pain is by hurting his body, something is definitely wrong in his life and this isn’t the time to be making moral judgments about his behavior.
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.

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.

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).

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.

Only teen-aged girls self-injure.
In five years of existence, the bodies-under-siege email list has had members of both genders, from six continents, and ranging in age from 14-60+. It’s a person-who-has-no-other-way-to-cope thing, not a teenage (or female or American or whatever) thing.

provided by American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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12 Responses to Common Myths about Self-Injury

  1. Lily says:

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to clear up stereotypes about SI. Even as someone who does self-harm, I tend to beat up on myself for being someone who “doesn’t fit” into the right categories.

  2. EDNOSnomore says:

    Another myth … self harm = cutting.

    There are many modalities of self harm that never involve a razor, a knife or cutting in any way shape or form.

  3. Callista says:

    Thanks for helping clear up some myths. I used to self harm and I still struggle with wanting to do it sometimes. It’s hard.

    • Thanks for posting, Callista.
      It certainly is common to continue to struggle with impulses. Good for you that you are able to resist.
      If you’d like to share, I bet others would be interested in how you were able to stop.

  4. Angelia says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I had self harmed for several years. It has been awhile since I have done anything though I find it to be a daily struggle not to since I’ve started counseling. I find that SI is a topic that a lot of people do not understand.

  5. Misunderstoodeyes says:

    Self harm is such a hard thing to cope with. The upset and pain it causes mentally & physically is outstanding. I haven’t harmed myself in over 6 months. Instead I decided to do a degree in counselling & want to focus my attention on others & their problems with self harm.
    I hope that more people read this & become less judgemental about others who self harm. Everyone copes with feelings in different ways- we just need to find the right way for us. X

    • Thanks for commenting. And good for you on 6 months! :)

      I hope you take the time to really get all the help you need to understand yourself in addition to wanting to focus on helping others. It is kind of like what they say on airplanes about giving yourself oxygen first before attempting to help others.

  6. Pingback: Self-Injury and Trauma | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Chicago

  7. Shay Tyler says:

    I always thought self-injury actions were about cutting or hurting yourself in some way physically like razors or whips. However my view on this has changed because of my own personal struggle. This last year for me has been very emotionally painful and I have this almost uncontrollable urge to shave my head. Every time I can’t cope with the pain, I find myself in the bathroom with a pair of scissors. I haven’t shaved my head but I come close by whacking off my hair to about an inch. I wear hats to cover my head because I’m ashamed of how I look. Sometimes I think I am developing OCD because it’s become a compulsion. I have thought about this a lot, trying to diagnose what is the matter with me. I love long hair. I want long hair. All my life I have been a strong and successful woman who’s had her act together. But now I’m a mess and I hurt so much inside. Cutting off my hair in such a fashion is for me an expression of my pain. In a weird way it is my way of screaming at the world to notice my agony. I saw a quote the other day that said “Depression and grief are forms of self hatred.” There might be a little bit of truth in that. I don’t want to take drugs so I am clawing and fighting my way out of this quagmire of sadness. I just wish I would quit cutting off my hair. It makes me feel ashamed, ugly, and undesirable. Thanks for posting this blog and letting people share.

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