Self-harm is not normally a lighthearted subject, and understandably so. However, as someone who has a long history of self-harm in many different forms, but has been clean for years, there is absolute beauty in recovery, and people don’t talk about it enough in my opinion.
I will mostly tell you about the beauty I have personally found in my self-help path to recovery, and some of the techniques I used to quit toxic coping mechanisms such as SH. Please note that if you are in a situation where you don’t think you can recover on your own, seek help as soon as you possibly can. I self-harmed on and off for four years, and I have now been clean for four years straight, all through trial and error, and little promises to myself.
Everyone has a different experience with self-harm and other harmful coping mechanisms, and we all have our different reasons for doing it. These aspects of the issue make recovery also look different for everybody. The important things to remember are: relapse is normal and common, learning to love and take care of yourself after dealing with something like self-harm is never easy, and everything is going to be okay. You are not alone, you are not weird, and you are not a bad person for having this struggle.
Dealing with mental health issues on my own from a young age has never been easy, but over the years I have discovered many helpful, healthy coping mechanisms, and strayed away from the harmful ones. In taking care of myself in this way, I have developed a much stronger and more fulfilling relationship with myself. One of the most efficient steps I took was making promises to myself. It not only provided motivation, but it created the beginning of the relationship with myself that may have been missing. Over my recovery journey that relationship became stronger and more loving. The last time I ever self-harmed, I had been clean for months, and it was a relapse. I felt terrible, and the sc*rs were just a constant reminder of my failure to recover (RELAPSE IS NOT A FAILURE TO RECOVER; IT IS EXPECTED! This was just a concern of mine at the time). The disappointment and shame around my new sc*rs were not helping me learn to love myself, so I turned it around and made them into motivation and goals. Rather than self-loathe for relapsing, I decided that if I couldn’t quit self-harming out of self-love I would do it because I hated the painful reminder of sc*rs and having to hide them; for me, that was the greatest starting place. It wasn’t forcing me to create self-love out of nothing, it was simply the first step to quitting a bad habit. Sc*rs were inconvenient, I was simply fixing that problem. Self-love could be developed after.
Of course, as I have mentioned, everyone is different. However, I self-harmed for years, and nothing except what I am about to suggest got me anywhere near quitting for good, so I believe it is worth sharing.
I needed to acknowledge that my mental health issues were not going to get better on their own, I was not going to wake up one morning feeling incredible and taking care of myself out of nowhere. You may know this already, but I was waking up every morning practicing harmful coping mechanisms and self-destructive habits and then claiming things would be better someday. However, when you live in that toxic cycle and do not acknowledge that you are feeding into it rather than fighting against it, things will not get better (if you’re anything like me, at least). It can be hard to admit that you are feeding into a cycle like that, but doing so was one of the biggest steps towards recovery for me, and it was the first one. It sucks to hear, but ending a harmful habit is quite difficult and you are going to have to challenge yourself and stay motivated.
Being clean for any amount of time felt amazing to me. In addition, starting by creating small goals and working my way up was much more productive than deciding to never do it again one day if I was feeling decent. Small victories are still victories. Be proud when you reach a goal no matter how small it is (you set that goal for a reason, it was difficult for you). Allowing yourself to feel as good as you possibly can about being clean for any amount of time is incredibly important, and helps develop a more positive relationship with yourself. Self harm often comes from feelings of self hatred, and even just a low self-esteem, so allowing yourself to feel proud of something is a really good step, especially if what you’re proud of is not hurting yourself.
As I mentioned before, turning disappointment or other negative feelings over relapsing into even more motivation is, although possibly difficult, much more productive. Negative thoughts towards myself fed into my SH and, weren’t going to help me quit; try and flip the script. “I was clean for so long and I ruined it” vs “let’s see if I can be clean for even longer this time”, “I just added more scars to heal and hide” vs “these scars will heal too, let’s not add any more”, you can say these phrases to yourself over and over again, for as long as it takes.
Those two tools are super important, and they both involve having empathy for yourself. If you feel super guilty and terrible for relapsing, be kind to yourself. I know this is an area where you need to challenge yourself, but you need to be patient with yourself as well. This is not an easy task. The following is relatively specific to my friends and I’s experiences, but I believe the main message applies to most: all habits are hard to break, but this is one often rooted in unsupported mental health issues and deep internal struggle. That’s why even just deciding to quit on your own is huge. People talk about recovery like it’s something everyone who has self harmed just does at some point on their own, and it makes those who have been struggling with it feel silly for not being able to stop. You are in pain and at some point, you didn’t have the tools to deal with it in a healthy way. Therefore, you have now developed unhealthy habits that became the only outlet for your internal struggle. It is much harder to feel emotional pain and to just start coping in a super positive way on your own (especially at a young age). It is easier to cope in a negative way in private; that’s what was accessible to you at the time. Of course, it is possible to stop and develop better habits, but it is not easy, at all. It is called recovering for a reason; people don’t normally have to recover from things on their own. Try and be kind and patient with yourself.
If nothing else motivates you, try to turn it into a bit of a game. This may not help you develop a positive relationship with yourself, but it will motivate you to quit self harming, which is a step towards self-love in and of itself. How long can you go without doing any form of self harm? This can also take away the shame in relapse, because it makes it feel less intense and emotionally heavy, and just resets your stage in the game.
Also, if you can, involving someone in a casual way was really beneficial to me as well. At one point I felt like I couldn’t stay clean on my own, so I put everything in my room that I could use to harm myself in a bag and told someone close to me, who I knew wouldn’t tell anyone else, to hide the bag somewhere. I knew I wouldn’t go looking for it, but not knowing where those potential tools were felt like an external barrier I didn’t have before. Sometimes pure willpower really isn’t enough, and you need separation from temptation. That is not something to be ashamed of.
Once you’re clean for a while, you can start looking forward. In my experience, the whole process of quitting helped me develop self love. Every method I used added positivity to my negative relationship with myself until I truly felt like I could love myself. Once that happened, I started paying attention to my interests, what I liked, and eventually developed hobbies that became outlets. I do have intrusive thoughts and get tempted every now and then. However, remembering the work I put into recovering, how long I have now been clean, and my promises to myself not to do it again is enough to keep me going in a positive direction. Currently, I love myself more than I love anybody else, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I really hope you learn to love yourself, too.
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