This article, submitted by experienced contributor Charis, looks at the implications that ‘no harm contracts’ – agreements to not self-injure – can have on those who use self-injury as a coping mechanism.
You’ve just found out that your friend / loved one is self-injuring. It’s very difficult for you to understand why, or how it helps in the short term, and you’re not really sure what to say or do to help. One thing you know for sure is that you don’t want this person to be doing this to themselves. So you plead with them. “You’ve got to stop!”, you cry. “Please don’t hurt yourself any more!”, you beg.
In all likelihood, these kind of pleas and ultimatums are going to be just as difficult for someone who self-injures to deal with as it is for you to know that they’re doing it. Unfortunately, self-injury is something it takes time to move away from. It’s not something people can usually just stop, just like that, just because someone has begged them to. Being asked to do so is adding unnecessary pressure to that person. There’s enough guilt and loneliness surrounding the problem already.
The question of ‘no-harm contracts‘ often comes up – sometimes professionals want people to sign a contract promising they won’t self-injure. Thankfully, it seems that many institutions and support-givers now understand that these are not the way forward.
If SI is a person’s coping mechanism, and you take it away, whilst the factors which drive them to self-injure are still very much present and unresolved, what are they left with to cope? It is far more important to focus on developing alternative coping mechanisms, at the same time as hopefully findings ways to alleviate the main factors causing this person to self-injure.
I know from personal experience the dangers of a no-harm type contract. When I was a young teenager, my parents were at their wits’ end. They were trying to support me and to help me, but they saw my self-injury as just another bad habit to break (a kind of extension of childhood ones such as thumb sucking and nail biting). As a child, the way to stop me thumb sucking had been a form of bribery along the lines of ‘we’ll buy you that new doll if you stop sucking your thumb’. Understandably desperate to stop me hurting myself, they offered gifts as a reward for me not self-injuring anymore. It had worked before, so why not now? I don’t blame them in the slightest bit for trying this – it wasn’t as if anyone really knew then that it wasn’t a good idea, and they were only doing their best.
However, I felt an immense pressure to succeed at the ‘contract’. At the time, I was keen to stop anyway. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing myself any good in the long term. But it’s not that simple, and I really hadn’t learnt to manage my emotions. So, when something happened, and my first reaction was that I needed to self-injure, I really didn’t want to break my agreement which would let my parents down. That added to the pressure, and instead of cutting (which was what I had agreed not to do), I ended up finding another way to hurt myself, taking a small (non-suicidal) overdose, which was of course more serious in that it required a hospital visit. Suddenly we found ourselves in different waters, and the no-harm contract was basically and thankfully forgotten about.
So, what can you do to help your friend / loved one? First of all, stay calm. Don’t try to solve the problem immediately – there is no quick fix. Listen carefully to what they are saying to you, and let them know you will support them. It may be a frustrating journey – you just want them to get better. But it’s worth treading carefully and helping them replace the coping mechanism with healthier ones in the long run; you may need to support them in getting help from a professional too. Have a read of LifeSIGNS self-injury guidance for others for more points.
Photo credit: d_jan