‚ÄčSelf harm can be very hard to understand both for the people who do it and for those who support them. 

The main thing to realise, and accept about it though, is that it is a way of coping. It is not madness, or attention seeking, or a suicide attempt. There are always very powerful reasons why a person chooses to injure self and, self-destructive though it may seem, self-injury is a way of surviving usually in the face of great emotional pain.

Common perceptions of self-injury

  • Self-injury is a sign of deep disturbance or madness. This is not true. It is a sign of distress and of someone trying to cope with his/her life despite great pain. Many people who self-injure lead successful lives and have careers or families.
  • Self-injury is a failed suicide attempt. It is a way of coping with life, not dying. Injuries are seldom life threatening. A person may want to kill the feeling - not themselves. It is a way of surviving through life.
  • Someone who self-injures is a danger to others. Self-injury is directed at self not others. Most people who self injure would never consider hurting someone else.
  • It is attention seeking and should be ignored. Everyone needs attention. For some, self-injury is a desperate attempt to draw attention to what is wrong and it's right that they should have attention paid to their distress and its causes. Many people who self-injure hide their injuries from others. It has far more to do with coping than with seeking attention. The attention that self-injury attracts is usually very negative and further hurtful for the person concerned. Seldom does it lead to a man/woman feeling better about themselves or to relieving the distress that caused it.
  • Self-injury is done to manipulate others. Like e.g. crying, talking, this can be the case. However, by far the most important motivation is that it helps a person cope. It is not about the effects of it on others.
  • Self-injury is an addiction or habit, which should be stopped. A person self-harms because he/she is distressed and it may be a coping mechanism, which has been habitually used, but it is not the behaviour, which is the problem but the pain and distress that gives rise to it. If they are stopped they may develop different coping strategies or hide what they are doing.
  • People who self-injure enjoy pain or do not feel it. This is not true. They may feel that they deserve pain or it may help them cope with a deeper emotional pain. Some people feel nothing at the time of injuring but later suffer from the wounds or burns.

Self-injury as control mechanism

  • The reasons for self-injury are complex and can vary from individual to individual. Self-injury almost always begins in response to painful and difficult experiences in the individual's life. Sometimes these stem from childhood trauma, though it can also be part of distress experienced in adulthood. Often there is no single cause that can be identified for self-injury, but it comes from a number of factors combining together in life which increase vulnerability and lead to a need to cope, or express feelings through self-injury.
  • One of the ways that self-injury helps someone cope is by giving them some way, however painful, of dealing with feelings. Many people who self-injure feel unbearable distress, fear and tension. Self-injury can act as a kind of safety valve and bring a sense of great relief, which can help the individual cope better with their life.
  • Self-injury can be about self-blame and turning anger inwardly. The person may take on all the responsibility for events that they can't control and self-injure in order to punish self. The person may really believe that they deserve to hurt.
  • Sometimes self-injury can feel like the only way that a person can release their feelings. They may feel angry, sad or anguished, frustrated and unable to shout, cry or speak to someone. The individual may have no other means of registering protest or releasing feelings. Self-injury can, for individuals at the time, be the only means of expressing their feelings.
  • Self-injury can be a way of avoiding feelings. It can be used as a means of numbing or distracting from the distress the individual is feeling. In this way the pain can distract away from other emotions that they are unable or unwilling to feel or deal with at that time. Pain can take individuals away from more uncomfortable feelings.
  • Some individuals feel that if they did not release some of the emotional distress through self-injury, then they would commit suicide. So the self-injury is about staying alive and not, as often perceived, as a suicide attempt.
  • Self-injury can be a way that individuals take control over an aspect of their life. This may be the only thing that they feel they have the power to control.
  • Self-injury can be a way of trying to communicate. An individual may need to make the pain visible to them and others. It can serve as a way of proving that they are hurting and need care or it may be a protest about something. The person may feel they have no other means of communicating feelings.
  • People may self-injure because they cannot ask for support in any other way. They may never have learned to ask for support; or comfort and support has always been denied. Only through the self-injury can they ask for support - ironically, support is then often denied because people misunderstand self-injury.
  • Self-injury may not, to the outside world, seem a logical thing to do, yet, for many it serves the very practical purpose of helping her/him cope and keep alive. It has its own logic and serves a function for the individual at the time.

The spectrum of self-harm / self-injury

  • Cutting, scratching, picking, scraping, burning, scalding
  • Inserting objects under the skin or into orifices
  • Swallowing objects, eating objects
  • Swallowing toxic or harmful substances
  • Hitting oneself with an object, fist, or against something
  • Pulling out hair, cutting hair off, shaving
  • Washing or scrubbing oneself harmfully - Brillo pad, wire brush etc
  • Self-strangling
  • Abuse of alcohol, drugs, solvents; smoking - nicotine and other substances; drug overdoses
  • Starving, bingeing, vomiting, compulsive eating, over-exercising
  • Anorexia, bulimia, overeating
  • Genital mutilation/breasts etc
  • Engaging in dangerous sexual behaviour or unwanted sex
  • Staying in abusive or unsatisfactory relationships (NB many have little choice)
  • Self-isolation
  • Excessive risk taking, putting oneself in dangerous situations
  • Driving too fast or when drunk
  • Not looking after ones health; eating poorly; not getting enough exercise or over exercising, not getting enough relaxation, rest; not keeping warm, not taking care of ailments etc.
  • Getting into fights; getting into trouble with the police
  • Gambling, habitual over spending
  • Financial crisis - shoplifting etc
  • Criminal behaviour
  • Rocking
  • Being selfless' - consistently putting ones own needs last
  • Guilt, worry, self-denigration, expecting too much of oneself
  • Habitual overwork, over ambition, under-ambition
  • Insulin abuse/abuse of prescription drugs
  • Draining blood - with a shunt
  • Body piercing/tattooing
  • Biting nails to the quick

Other ways of coping

Sometimes we don't

  • Cry
  • Running
  • Hill walking
  • Walking the dog
  • Walking in pleasant surroundings
  • Eat
  • Relaxing bath with candles
  • Talk to someone we trust
  • Visit friends
  • Phone someone
  • Moan
  • Have a cuppa
  • Think things through
  • Be on your own
  • Go for a drive
  • Cuddle your pet/teddy/kids
  • Read a book
  • Watch a good movie
  • Sleep
  • Work out an action plan
  • Writing letters (and maybe not sending them)
  • Visualisation - e.g. imagining the person who's annoyed, upset, abused you, shrinking
  • Giving your day a colour - imagining that colour radiates throughout your body, then have a shower and imagine all the colour draining away and being replaced by a warm, safe, comforting colour
  • Other relaxation techniques
  • Cleaning
  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Writing poetry
  • Pray
  • Exercise
  • Seek advice
  • Find a sanctuary
  • Yoga/tai chi/swimming