Understanding Self-Harm

Posted on 31 August 2015

If you know someone who is self-harming, one of the biggest challenges you might face is understanding why someone would want to do that to themselves. A lot of negative reactions people have to finding out about someone’s self-harm come more from not understanding than being truly angry.

The biggest piece of advice here is that everyone is different. A person’s reasons for self-harming are as unique as they are, so remember that there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution to self-harm.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is deliberately doing something to harm yourself. Self-harming could be:

  • Cutting yourself (probably the most common form)
  • Poisoning yourself
  • Excessive use of drugs or alcohol
  • Burning yourself
  • Hitting yourself against walls
  • Pulling our hair
  • Scratching yourself excessively
  • Punching yourself

Self-harm is a coping mechanism. It’s how some people try to deal with bad things that happen to them.

Everyone has some form of coping mechanism – think about what you do when you’ve had a really bad day. Maybe it’s talking to someone, going for a walk, having a glass of wine or a good soak in a bubble bath. That’s how you cope. Self-harm is a negative way of coping that some people use, that actually becomes a problem in itself.

To help someone stop self-harming, they need to find some other, more positive, coping mechanism.

There are all sorts of reasons why someone might self-harm. Some causes may be:

  • Bullying
  • Pressure at school or work
  • Relationship problems
  • Dealing with loss/bereavement
  • Family problems
  • Issues around gender or sexuality
  • Experiencing big changes
  • Abuse and/or neglect
  • Feeling isolated
  • Feeling a lack of control
  • Feeling rejected
  • Feeling numb or disconnected
  • Not feeling able to express their pain verbally
  • Or any situation – past, present or future – that could be traumatic, upsetting, or hard to deal with

Sometimes a situation may not seem so bad to you, but to someone else it could be very distressing. Try to put yourself into their shoes, and see it from their point of view.

What are triggers?

A self-harm trigger is something that causes a strong emotional reaction, giving a person the urge to self-harm. It could be a specific image, word, memory, or situation, like some of those listed above. Some people know what their triggers are, others don’t. By identifying what someone’s triggers are, you can work together to stop them from being exposed to triggers too often, or to know when to reach out for help before they self-harm.

A good suggestion to help someone spot their own triggers is to get them to keep a diary of every time they self-harm, or feel the urge to. Look for patterns and see if there’s anything you can do to stop these patterns repeating themselves in the future.

For the person you know, self-harm is serving a purpose. That might be:

  • Helping them feel in control (over how much they hurt themselves)
  • Trying to make them feel something if they feel numb or disconnected
  • Expressing how much they’re hurting emotionally
  • Saying how they’re feeling without having to talk out loud
  • Distracting themselves from a painful situation or memory
  • A way to express anger or frustration without taking it out on someone else
  • Punishing themselves for something

You can’t just tell someone to stop. You can help by finding other coping mechanisms that serve the same purpose.

It doesn’t mean the person self-harming is suicidal. In fact, because self-harm is serving a purpose as a coping mechanism, it can sometimes indicate that someone wants to keep on living but just don’t know how else to cope.

It’s important to note though that self-harm does increase the risk of suicide, or accidental death. Self-harming over a long period of time can lead to a lack of self-worth or escalating the extent of the harm.

Self-harm can be like an addiction. It can be incredibly hard to stop self-harming. Once it’s become a pattern of how to cope with negative situations, it can become the only way you know how to cope, and can then get out of hand, becoming the first reaction to the slightest difficulty.

Self-harm is a nasty cycle – a person feels bad, and so they self-harm, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame, which can lead to them self-harming more to deal with those negative feelings.

It can be hard to break the cycle, and, like any addiction, can only happen when that person decides they’re ready and want help.

Is self-harm just attention seeking?

Not really. Most people who self-harm keep it to themselves as a private, personal thing rather than broadcasting it. Being told that your way of coping is just attention seeking can leave you feeling alienated and judged, which can just make matters worse.

Another way to look at it: If someone feels that the only way they can express themselves or be noticed is to hurt themselves, then there’s an issue of communication that seriously needs to be addressed.