Self-Harm Language Preferences for Meaningful Conversation
Self-injury can be a difficult topic to discuss, whether you're sharing your own experiences or trying to offer support to someone else. Careful consideration of the self-harm language you use can help you have more meaningful (and helpful) conversations.
Self-Harm Language to Avoid
First, let's talk about what not to say in self-harm conversations. This may differ slightly from person to person (and I can't speak for anyone's self-harm language preferences but my own), but it's usually best to avoid the following:
- Judgments, including accusations or personal attacks (such as "self-harming is gross" or "it's stupid to hurt yourself")
- Oversimplifications, such as asking why someone doesn't just stop self-harming (spoiler alert—it's not that easy)
- Dismissive language that implies the problem is exaggerated or isn't real (such as "you're just doing it for attention")
- Assumptions about a person's experiences (such as equating self-harm with suicidal intent)
- Imperative statements that tell the other person what to think or what to do (when advice was not asked for)
Personally, I also avoid using the term self-mutilation as it sometimes carries religious and cultural connotations. More than that, to me, it implies that the point of the act is mutilation when, in my experience, what I was really chasing was the (temporary) relief that the act provided.
Self-Harm Language to Use Instead
Again, not all people share the exact same preferences regarding self-harm language to use—whether publicly or in everyday conversations—but there are some approaches that generally work well regardless of the specific situation.
"Would you like advice, or do you just want to vent?" is often a good question to ask early in a conversation. This lets you know whether your input will be welcome or not. Whatever the case may be, be sure to honor that preference.
"I don't understand" is something that's okay to say. It's okay to be honest if you really don't get something someone is trying to tell you about self-harm—and it's much better than pretending otherwise. It's tempting to think that faking understanding will spare this person's feelings, but in fact, all you're really doing is sparing yourself from having to admit the truth.
"Do you want help finding information/resources/someone to talk to about this?" is also something you can say. Don't jump into a conversation with a savior complex. This person may not be ready to seek outside help just yet or may prefer to do so in private. It is okay, however, to offer your help—as long as you follow through if your offer is accepted. Even if you are rejected, most people will still appreciate the thought.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" is always a welcome sentiment. If you already know (or you can reasonably assume) that the person you're talking to doesn't want professional help at this time, this is a better alternative to the previous option. Even if therapy is out of the question, there are other ways you can provide support. It's best, however, to let the other person tell you what will help rather than assume you already know the answer.
Do you have other self-harm language preferences not listed here? Please feel free to share your ideas, questions, or concerns in the comments. The more openly we can talk about self-harm, the more people will begin to understand it—and the smoother the road to recovery will become.
Kim Berkley (2022, March 31). Self-Harm Language Preferences for Meaningful Conversation, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, December 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/speakingoutaboutselfinjury/2022/3/self-harm-language-preferences-for-meaningful-conversation