As someone who has struggled with self-harm for over 12 years I have pretty much heard all the possible distraction techniques or “safer alternatives” to self-harm that anyone under the sun could come up with. While preparing resources for a self-harm support group I had a thought. One of those light bulb moments that completely turns around the way you’ve always viewed something and so I thought I would write a blog to share and explain the thought in the hope that it may be helpful to at least someone.
I wouldn’t say I am an angry person and I don’t think anyone would describe me that way. However something that is guaranteed to make me fairly irate is people suggesting I “squeeze an ice cube” or “have a bath” or “punch a pillow” instead of self-harm. It makes me want to scream at them and ask if they think I’m stupid and do they not think that if that worked I would have done it before and I want to shake them because they can’t see that I don’t want to “paint a picture” or “snap and elastic band”, I want to hurt myself.
Here comes the thought I had, an analogy for using distraction techniques that compares it to a situation we’ve all been in, I presume, and to me it’s a helpful thought.
You see a coat in a shop and you absolutely fall in love with it. It’s perfect and beautiful and you are desperate for it. But it’s £300 and that’s extortionate all you have in your savings. Buying the coat would give you a really nice coat and satisfy the desperation for giving yourself exactly what you want. Yet it would mean you couldn’t go to the cinema with your friends tomorrow or buy your mum a birthday present or get a new outfit for next weekend. Your friend is showing you other coats and pointing out how the pockets on that one are very similar to the one you like or how that one will be just as warm and the one over there is the same colour. You start to feel really angry, you feel annoyed because you really want this coat and yes one had similar pockets and another is the same colour but the expensive coat is perfect because it’s all the thing you want and need. Gradually you start to think the situation through logically and think about the longer term effects of spending all your money and decide it’s better to find something that fulfils some of the criteria of the dream coat but is cheaper and so negatively impacts you less in the future.
You feel sad walking out of the shop and flit back and forth between forcing yourself to walk away logically knowing you made the best decision, and feeling sudden urges to run back and buy the coat. You still feel a pang of sadness and longing sometimes when you walk past the shop again that week but you hold on to knowing that you have a coat and other clothes and are warm. Using distraction techniques for self-harm is similar to this I think. It’s not that you view self-harm as perfect, in many ways it’s not at all like seeing a lovely coat, but the urges come and you want/need to do it. Nothing seems like it will satisfy as much as harming will. Yes an ice cube will give you a physical sensation but there won’t be blood. Yes rearranging a cupboard helps me feel in control but I won’t feel the pain I believe I deserve, yes punching a pillow will release some tension but I won’t be able to help myself heal physically which helps because I can’t heal emotionally. What we need to remember is that no one is trying to tell you that going for a run feels exactly the same as harming and no one is asking “why were you so stupid for not doing that in the first place” but it’s just encouraging you to do something that may provide you with one aspect of what you need in the moment such as bringing you back to reality but without having the negative impacts in the future that being caught in self-harming brings. Just like with the coat where you have to choose if what you really want most is the pockets or the pretty colour the distraction techniques may not feel like it helps you in the moment as much as harming but you have to try and think about what you are trying to get from harming (control, grounding, a sensation etc.) and choose a different way of achieving some of that in a safer way. It’s going to feel hard, it’s going to be an effort to resist. But self-harm has so many negative longer term impacts and that’s what distraction and substitute is trying to avoid.
My name is Bethany and I am studying health and social care at college with plans to do psychology at Newcastle Uni next year. In between college, my job at a tea rooms and volunteering with young people you can usually find me at the gym, walking my dog or shopping in wholefoods. I have a (verging on OTT) collection of pretty plates and bowls and random fact bout me is that despite being 20 I still have 4 baby teeth! I think part of my inspiration for this blog came from spending a lesson looking for a new winter coat, deciding I ideally needed 4 and then coming up with a (not so) short list that was 3 A4 pages long! My greatest aspiration in life is to use my experiences to help other and break stigmas surrounding mental illness. Twitter: @bethanyrose19