Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is defined as the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue, usually done without the intent of suicide. Self harm has a stigma attached to it, with non-suffers often assuming the only reason for this behaviour is to garner ‘attention’. However, this behaviour is often routed in psychological suffering and provides a function for the sufferer.

Self-harm is often associated with a history of trauma, including emotional and sexual abuse. Some use it as a coping mechanism to provide temporary relief of intense feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress, emotional numbness, or a sense of failure.

Studies also provide strong support for a self-punishment function. Often those that self harm have strong feelings of guilt. They believe they deserve to be punished for some perceived failing, so they inflict harm on themselves. Punishing ones self has been found to relieve these feelings of guilt. In one study, participants who were made to feel guilty by depriving a fellow student of a few lottery tickets were willing to keep their hands in freezing ice water for significantly longer periods of time.

Another reason people may self harm is to avoid disassociating. Self harm may be the only way the individual is able to feel like they are alive and real. It is used as a grounding strategy to interrupt the disassociation process.

Others use self harm as a form of sensation-seeking. Self harm allows them to feel calm and in control. The body’s endorphin release can provide this calming effect, the antidote to the body’s activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

Some individuals may wish to be cared for and inflicting harm on themselves can be a way to get the affection and attention of those close to them. Usually these individuals have a history of abandonment and may fear feeling uncared for.

In conclusion, there are many reasons someone may self harm and there is almost always a deeper reason for doing so. It is often a coping technique and it cannot be taken away without allowing the individual to find something else to replace the behaviour. Finding the route cause of the behaviour can help you find healthier ways of coping. If you struggle with self harm, please seek help.

29 thoughts on “Why do People Self-Harm?

  1. So true! Until I found a healthier way to cope, I found myself drinking more since I couldn’t injure myself.. But you’re right, until I analyzed why I feel the need to do it I couldn’t begin to try break myself away from the relief it brings.
    And it definitely isn’t about suicide.. At times it felt like the only thing stopping me from suicide.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, teachers truly have the hardest job, especially with the increasing number of students suffering from mental illness these days. I’m glad you found this article helpful and I hope it brings a greater understanding of some of your students. Thank you for all you do!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A few reasons for me and how severely I injure myself depends on then:

    – to feel something when I am faced with terrifying emptiness
    – as an act of self-hatred
    – as a response to a crisis/ meltdown

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your friends suffering. 😦 I agree the ‘attention’ thing is annoying to hear. Even if it were for attention, it points to a deeper problem if an individual is willing to inflict damage on themselves in order to gain that attention. Internal wounds need to be tended to before external ones can.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is so true. When I started self-harming, I would accuse myself of doing it for attention, which caused me to feel ashamed and hate myself even more and most importantly: I thought that because I was doing it “for attention” I would not deserve help. Which as I realized later, was the biggest reason for me fighting the thought of going to therapy.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m one of the few men I’ve heard of with a (distant) history of self harm. After a ton of introspection and writing therapy, I decided I was looking for an external balancing symptom for the internal pain I was feeling. Self harm is a tricky animal. I think I’d be seriously distressed if one of my kids started showing a propensity for it.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. This explains self injury in a understanding way that I think everyone should read. I would self injure to feel something, self punishment, and to be in control. When I couldn’t harm myself by cutting I started smoking cigarettes and would drink alcohol if I was in a bad place mentally. I’m almost 1 year cigarette free and I’m cutting back on my drinking. I’m trying to promote fitness and raise awareness about mental health now.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. You definitely hit this topic from all angles and it is definitely appreciated as someone who has a history of self-harm. I’m glad you started off by saying it’s not about trying to kill yourself, that is such a huge misconception.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for the interesting post. I always associated self-harm with cutting, which I’ve never done, but in the past I have delivered heavy blows to my own head at times or ground my fist into my eye to the point of worrying about permanent damage to interrupt thoughts that disturbed me or to punish myself for failings or just dealing with overwhelming anxiety. Maybe not the same thing. But I wonder what percentage of the population has a tendency to harm themselves in some fashion?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks for this calm, understanding description of self-harm. I’ve self-harmed, by burning myself, off and on for many years. I agree about the need for replacement behaviors. Over time and with a lot of therapy, I’ve developed a large repertoire of self-care behaviors, and I always try them first. In the midst of extreme emotional distress, I can usually rely on those behaviors to help enough that I can “postpone” the self-harm. Enough postponing, and with luck I will have passed the worst of it. I don’t know if the urge will ever go away, but actually engaging in self-harm has become a rare thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I spent years self harming through cutting and bulimia. It was my way of coping with depression and anxiety. It was how I got through my day feeling okay. Bulimia and cutting went hand in hand. Cutting was my punishment for failing at purging and a substitute for it.

    In the long run, it actually didn’t help me with my anxiety. It worsened it.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Guilt is a very strong and controlling emotion. If the underlying issue isn’t treated earlier in life, there is a chance suicide (cutting, etc.) can result. Also, people may start as well as rely on cutting to get them through the day because it temporarily makes them feel alive because of the “temporary” feeling of pain.

    Liked by 1 person

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