Knowledge is a very powerful thing and having the knowledge about what self-harm is and isn’t will be important in your road to recovery. If you are able to understand what leads you to self-harm then you will be in a much better position to work through the urges when you experience them.
The problem is that there are so many myths and misonceptions about self-harm that clouds our ability to understand the behavior. I still have to remind myself that I’m not crazy and there isn’t anything “wrong” with me because I’ve self-harmed. A dangerous narrative of myths played in my head for so long which only perpetuated the self-harming behavior.
My therapist and I recently began book-clubbing Freedom from Self-Harm: Overcoming Self-Injury with Skills from DBT and Other Treatments by Kim L. Gratz and Alexander L. Chapman. (Side note: for anyone who has ever dealt with self-harm, I highly recommend this book. It is informative, up to date, and compassionate.) The second chapter is dedicated to describing and debunking the most common myths about self-harm. This chapter was validating in that it debunked many of the myths that I knew were false. However, I found myself equally sad that I had believed so many of these myths for so long. I think it’s extremely important to separate fact from fiction when dealing with self-harm especially when the myths are so damaging. I am going to summarize a few of the myths below that I identified with the most:
Myth #1: Self-Harm is the same as a suicide attempt
Ugh! So false! And probably one of the most common misconceptions about self-harm. Although it may look like a suicide attempt, it is extremely frustrating that self-harm is misunderstood in this way. In fact, self-harm is the opposite of a suicide attempt because it is an attempt to cope with problems. Suicide represents an extreme state of hopelessness and a desire to end life whereas self-harm is a way to deal with the stresses and anxieties of life. Therefore self-harm is very different from a suicide attempt.
Myth #2: Self-Harm is manipulative
I had this one thrown at me many times and it may stem from a few different places. First, many people will find themselves attempting to help and support someone who is self-harming and then feeling frustrated when the person continues to self-harm. This may lead some to believe that the behavior is being used to manipulate them to give attention and care. The problem is that you cannot infer people’s intentions based on the effects of their behavior. In terms of seeking attention, some people who self-harm might be desperately seeking attention from another person (a basic human instinct) and self-harming may be the only way they know how to do this. For some people, receiving negative attention is better than receiving no attention at all. The bottom line is that self-harm isn’t an attempt to be manipulative.
Myth #3: If you self-harm, you have Borderline Personality Disorder
FALSE. Self-harm may be one of the nine criteria included in the DSM-V’s diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) however this does not mean that everyone who self-harms has BPD. This is another damaging myth about self-harm. Gratz & Chapman found that in one study of 47 college students who self-harmed, none of them met the criteria for BPD. The only way of truly knowing if an individual has BPD is with a formal diagnostic assessment.
Myth #4: Self-Harm is crazy, sick, and irrational
Many people who haven’t self-harmed may view the behavior as incomprehensible and in direct conflict with our human instinct to take care of ourselves. However, self-harm often serves the basic human needs of releasing emotional pain and feeling better. As humans, we are often doing things that make us feel better so how can self-harm be considered crazy if it is in essence, a means to feel better? Of course there are certainly many other ways to feel better that do not have the same negative consequences as self-harm. Nevertheless, self-harm is meeting some sort of emotional need and therefore it is deeply unfair to consider the behavior crazy, sick, and irrational.
I have only briefly discussed a few myths about self-harm out of the many that are out there. These myths can be very damaging and painful to those who self-harm and the best way to debunk them is by having honest conversations and learning the truth about self-harm.