When I was a junior in high school and in a leadership position at my youth group, there was a 5- or 6-week period of time when, every week, someone different would confide in me that they were physically self-harming.
I wept when a girl showed me the crosshatched scars on her arms, some still raw. Girls would come up to me and tell me they were bingeing and purging, or not eating at all, hitting their arms with bristly hair brushes, or even piercing themselves.
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I was also self-harming during that time (from the stress and anxiety of being confided in), but I didn’t realize it. My own forms of self-harm weren’t physical, making them harder to identify. I’d even go on to call them my coping mechanisms — habits like withdrawing from everyone and hiding in myself, overspending, stress eating, burying myself in schoolwork so I wouldn’t have time to think about the different stressors in my life.
The point is, self-harm isn’t only physical. Everyone tries to deal with different stressors in different ways, and some things we think of as coping mechanisms can actually be harmful. Where’s the line? How do we identify non-physical forms of self-harm?
What Is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is “when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences.” When we think of self-harm, we usually think of physical harm, probably because that’s the easiest to identify. But hurting yourself isn’t limited to physically hurting yourself.
Yes, emotional self-harm is a thing. Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program says that emotional self-harm “comes in all forms and can be just as dangerous as physical self-harm.”
They continue, “Emotional self-harm ranges from telling ourselves we are not good enough and becoming our own worst enemy to engaging in a pattern of destructive friendships and relationships.”
— Stop Self Harm (@StopSelfHarm) November 1, 2019
Healthy Coping Mechanism
How can we tell if something is a healthy coping mechanism or self-harm? If you’re particularly in tune with yourself, your intuition can probably do most of the guidance here. But many of us who emotionally self-harm are not in tune with ourselves, so I’ll break down some popular coping mechanisms and methods of emotional self-harm, and talk about what makes them healthy or unhealthy.
Am I a compulsive shopper? Well, I’ve gotten better in recent years, but there was a time (a very low time in my life) when I definitely compulsively shopped. I am still paying off that debt.
Shopping is not inherently bad — so when does it become self-harm?
Buying Things As Healthy Coping
You have the money to spend without dipping into other funds. Better yet, you have some money in the “shopping” category of your budget. Taking a quick trip to Target to browse, pick up some necessities and treat yourself to something from the bargain section isn’t necessarily self-harm. It can give you a bit of a reprieve from whatever you’re feeling, and that brain break could give you some time to gain a neutral perspective on your situation.
Buying Things As Self-Harm
You don’t have the money to spend and you’re about to buy something you DEFINITELY don’t need (trust me, you don’t need it). For a lot of people (*cough* me *cough*), credit cards are too easy to buy things on, and new tech is a BIG temptation. If you know your wallet wouldn’t thank you for buying something, don’t buy it!
Give your credit cards to a trusted household member! Seriously, this was a game-changer for me. My roommate has all of my credit cards somewhere in her room, and she’ll give me one if I have a serious emergency. I’d also recommend not saving your payment info on your phone, computer, or any of your online accounts. I’ll “add to cart” compulsively, get to checkout, and be way too lazy to go get my wallet. A few hours later, I don’t even feel the need to shop anymore.
Every relationship involves a give-and-take with your partner. There will be times when you need more support from your partner, and there will be times when they need more support from you. All of this is healthy; but when is it not?
Healthy Relationship Coping
Healthy relationship coping involves open communication with your partner about your feelings and your mental health, clear boundaries on both sides, and an understanding that if you (or they) do need extra care and support, it won’t be for forever.
Unhealthy, Codependent Self-Harm
The balance between caregiver and caretaker is off — one of you is a caregiver and the other is taking advantage. This is a form of self-harm no matter what side of the equation you’re on. If you’re finding yourself as the primary caregiver, it may feel good — someone depends on you and you feel able to fulfill their needs — but it’s harmful in the long run. If you’re the care-recipient, you need to learn how to meet your own needs; neglecting them is hurting not only yourself, but also your partner.
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Therapy! Couples’ therapy is a thing, and if any of the above resonated with you, you should probably be in it. If your relationship has been unhealthy for a while and you find yourself consistently using it as a form of self-harm, you may need to step away from it for a while, if not permanently.
Ding ding ding, this is another big one for me. I actually like to combine stress eating with stress spending (DoorDash, Grubhub, and Postmates have seen way too much of me).
Obviously, eating is not bad. You have to nourish yourself! So when does eating cross the line to self-harm?
Eating As Healthy Coping
Dude, if you’re sad, yes, treat yourself to some ice cream. Have a whole pint during a romcom (or, if you’re me, a horror movie) — I won’t tell. Having a once-in-a-while treat yourself night is not at all a bad thing — it’s actually very healthy.
A great way to make sure you’re healthily treating yourself is by scheduling your treat time — pick a day of the week to order Chinese food and bundle up with a movie. Just please tell me when and where so I can join.
Stress Eating As Self-Harm
You can’t stop eating. You just eat, regardless of whether you feel full. Or you order food every night rather than cooking, or you have a pint of ice cream every night instead of just now and then. Anything in excess is not great, food included. As you’ve heard a million times, moderation is key!
Therapy (I’ll probably say therapy for a lot of these things). Please go seek some help. Beyond that, if your main issue is ordering food too much (looking at myself), you can do the aforementioned credit card trick (the one where you no longer have access to them — I SWEAR, it works wonders). You could also delete the food delivery apps from your phone, and again, don’t save your payment methods within the apps. Make it as difficult as possible to order food.
If you just struggle with overeating what’s in your house, stay away from unhealthy/tempting options in the grocery store. If you’re like me and literally can’t stick to a list in the store, go with a food delivery service! I love Imperfect Foods because they offer tons of yummy produce, and there are only a few options every week that seriously tempt me.
Hello, bed. I love you.
Whenever I’m stressed, my reaction is to want to sleep. When I’m going through a rough patch, I’ll sleep upwards of 12 hours a night.
You’ll NEVER hear me say that sleeping is bad for you. Sleep is necessary, and at certain times you may need to get some more zzz’s in. But when is sleep not the best coping mechanism?
When you’re stressed, sometimes you just have to sleep. I get it. Sleep is pretty much always healthy, so I’m going to just focus on when it’s not.
Sleep As Self-Harm
Again, the act of sleeping is never bad. Your body needs it. But if you find yourself crawling under the covers to avoid responsibilities like work, school, or even the simple tasks of feeding yourself and showering, it may be doing more harm than good.
— Cosmopolitan (@Cosmopolitan) December 12, 2015
You guessed it, therapy! Also, give yourself set times when you’re allowed to be in your bed; for example, 9pm-8am. That’s 11 hours, which is hopefully plenty! Or you could give yourself a set number of hours you can be in bed, and spread those out as you need to throughout the day.
Working out is great, right? Yeah. It’s actually a great, healthy stress reliever as well. The main thing to take into consideration with exercise is the motivation behind it, as unhealthy compulsive exercise is often a sign of an underlying issue.
Exercise As Healthy Coping
Want to go on a 5-mile run to let go of some stress? Please, go for it. I admire you and I wish I was you, but you’ll probably find me stress baking instead.
Exercise As Self Harm
Have you been working out without eating for, like, 5 hours? Are you doing it to lose weight because you think you’re “too fat”? Are you using exercise to avoid responsibilities? If you answered “yes” to any of the above, exercise may actually be causing you harm.
Take a good, hard look at why you’re exercising. If your motivation isn’t great, then exercise may not be a good coping mechanism. As always, therapy is a great resource. An accountability buddy would also be good for this one — someone who sees you regularly, like a family member or roommate, and who can gently call you out if they see you working out too much.
Please, volunteer and engage in community service to your heart’s content — as long as you’re being healthy about it. I’m an enneagram 2 who only just realized she’d been unhealthily self-sacrificing for YEARS. Here’s how I differentiate between the two now.
When it’s healthy, I prefer to just use the term “giving.” Why? Because when we give, we have a supply we’re able to give from. When I healthily give my time, emotional energy, or resources, I can do that without significant detriment to myself.
I also think about motivation here — why do I feel the need to give right now? If I’ve been moved by compassion or even just want the self-satisfaction of knowing I’ve given back, giving can be a healthy coping mechanism. Sometimes helping others can put your own issues into perspective or give you a feeling of belonging.
Self-Sacrifice As Self-Harm
You don’t have the supply to give from. You’re running on empty but trying to give anyway, whether it’s from your emotional reserves or your wallet.
You may be wondering — why would anyone give what they don’t have? I’ll tell you why, from my own personal experience. I’d do it because I wanted to be liked. I wanted people to appreciate me and recognize me, so I’d give what I didn’t have to gain the appreciation I should have been giving myself.
Become very aware of your own limits and supplies, and set boundaries. Also, therapy. Learn to say no, not only to others, but also to yourself, and practice cultivating self-appreciation through affirmations and mindfulness.
Can you relate to this discussion about self-harm? Tell us your own story in the comments below!
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