Talking About Self-Harm: What Not to Say

February 4, 2021 Kim Berkley

Broaching a sensitive topic like self-injury can be daunting. On the one hand, talking about self-harm is often an important part of the healing process, but on the other hand, it can feel a bit like trekking across a field filled with landmines. If you're worried about how to talk about self-harm, here's what not to say—and a few suggestions for what to try instead.

What Not to Say to a Self-Harming Loved One

I've been lucky in that the few times I've disclosed my history with self-harm personally to a loved one, the experience has always been largely positive. But not everyone is so lucky, and I know how easily a talk about self-harm could turn sour with just a few wrong words. While you shouldn't be afraid to talk about self-injury with your loved one, there are definitely some areas to avoid if you can help it. Below are a few examples of what not to say to a self-harming loved one.

Don't make accusations or place blame. As someone who struggled a lot with feelings of guilt and regret—even before I tried to talk to anyone about it—I can tell you that adding to whatever negative emotions your loved one might feel can only exacerbate the situation. Instead, calmly let your loved one know that you are aware of the situation (if that is not already obvious) and that you are here to help in whatever way you can.

Don't try to force your loved one to open up. It is enough to share that you are concerned but understand if the time is not right to talk about it. Then, emphasize that you will be there if and when your loved one is ready to talk.

Don't try to offer solutions every time you talk. While you can and should play an active role in your loved one's recovery if you are asked to, self-harm is not a puzzle to be solved simply by putting the pieces together. Instead, ask first if your loved one would like some advice or for you to just listen.

Don't threaten your loved one with ultimatums like, "If you don't stop, I'm signing you up for rehab." Hanging a threat over your loved one's head is like adding fuel to the fire—one that can burn you both if you are not careful. Instead, state why you are concerned. Even if the situation becomes critical, don't make threats—but do get help by calling 9-1-1 or going to the hospital as soon as possible.

Disclosing Self-Harm: What Not to Say to Friends and Family

If you are instead facing the prospect of disclosing your own self-harming habit to someone close to you, know that you have some considerations to keep in mind as well. Below are a few examples of what not to say about self-harm when disclosing your history to friends and family—and what to try instead.

Don't make accusations or place blame. This rule is the same on both sides. Instead, frame your disclosure in terms of what you are feeling and what you hope to achieve. For example, "This has been really hard for me, and it's not easy to talk about. But I wanted you to understand what I've been going through." Or, "I've been struggling a lot, but I'm hoping by talking about it, we can figure out some things that will help me feel better."

Don't assume that your loved one already knows about your self-injury. Doing so suggests that your loved one should already know, an insinuation that carries various negative implications. Instead, simply explain the situation and allow the other person to tell you if the explanation is unnecessary.

Don't say you want help if you don't want it. It's okay to disclose self-harm just to talk things out. Often, talking is just the first step on the road to self-injury recovery. It's alright if you need some time to sit with this disclosure before moving on to the next step.

If you've talked with a loved one before about self-harm, do you have any other suggestions for this list? Feel free to share your ideas or any other thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

APA Reference
Kim Berkley (2021, February 4). Talking About Self-Harm: What Not to Say, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 20 from

Author: Kim Berkley

Find Kim on Instagram, Facebook and her blog.

Leave a reply