How to react when your friend says they self-injure
We know it may all sound weird, but how you react really matters
Initial reactions are very important. It will probably be very shocking for you to hear that your friend is self harming, and hard for you not to reveal your emotions or exactly what you’re thinking. If you can, try and stay calm and non-judgemental – it will help both you and your friend.
It takes a lot of courage to reveal something like this. It is not an act of attention seeking. Your friend may have been mulling it over for a long time and deciding who best to share it with. The fact they are telling you means they trust you. Please don’t abuse this trust by sharing this very personal revelation with anyone else. Think how you would feel if someone shared your biggest secret. (The exception to this is if you truly fear for their safety.)
If it’s all bit much for you to take in, please share this with your friend. It’s ok to ask to for time to digest what you have heard. Let them know you are there for them, but you just need a bit of time to let it sink in. They may have some material they would like you to read (ie, factsheet about self-injury, or perhaps something they have written for you) and may well expect you to need some time. Not everything needs to be said in one sitting.
When you are ready to have a longer conversation, make sure you are somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed and you’re both comfortable.
It’s important to take things at your friend’s pace. Yes, it’s ok to ask them questions, it’s natural to want to try to understand as much as possible why your friend is self-injuring. Don’t feel however that you have to have all the answers all at once. If you feel your friend ‘claming up’, back off a little with the questions and just try to ‘hear them’. Don’t be scared to crack a joke to lighten the mood! A little friendly laughter could relax you both. Don’t be afraid to ask what you might think is a silly question.
At LifeSIGNS we find it more helpful and positive to focus more on what drives a person to self-injure, rather than the act itself or any specific details. Self-injury is a coping mechanism, so it is good to know what it is your friend is trying to cope with. If they don’t feel they can share this with you, as frustrating as that may be for you, it’s ok. Don’t feel it is a slight on you or your friendship, it’s just something very hard for them to put into words.
Ask what you can do to help. They may not want you to do anything – just the relief that someone else knows can be a huge thing. They may ask if they can contact you when they feel the urge to self-injure, either just to talk things through or help distract them. Please only agree to this if it will not be a burden to you. It’s important that you look after your own well-being first and foremost. You can’t support anyone if you don’t look after yourself. It may be helpful to know what distraction techniques have worked for them in the past. We have a great list of ideas on our website, including the 15 minute rule.
Although it can be upsetting to think of your friend self-injuring, please do not give them a no-self-injury ultimatium. This may just leave your friend feeling isolated and hurting even more. The pressure of not hurting themselves because you’ve asked them not too will be too much to bear when urges and triggers are strong. By all means, help them through an urge or a trigger, help them with distraction techniques or just be there to listen, but please never ask someone to outright stop. Moving away from self-injury can and does take a long time.
Your friend has chosen to share with you that they self-injure. It’s great to be able to be there for them and support them, but it is not your responsibility. Encourage them, if they have not already done so, to seek professional help. Offer to go with them to their GP or a counsellor. If you’re at school, perhaps there is a teacher they trust or the school nurse. It’s not something you should force, but will be very helpful in the long run for both you and your friend.
Things to remember:
- Self-injury is a coping mechanism;
- It is not about attention-seeking;
- It’s ok to ask for time to let the news sink in;
- Take things at your friend’s pace;
- If you are able to offer support, ask what you can do to help;
- Don’t give a no-self-injury ultimatium;
- Encourage them to seek professional help.
Most importantly – they are still exactly the same person as they were before they told you they self-injured.
More guidance to help you: