Why Do People Self-Harm?

Self-harm refers to someone hurting their body on purpose. The methods for harm vary, and the injuries can range in severity. While self-harm itself is not a mental disorder, the behaviors can become compulsive and progressive.

Self-harm can be confusing and frustrating for individuals and their loved ones. After all, why would someone want to hurt themselves voluntarily? Let’s get into the reasons you need to know. 

What Is Self-Harm And Who Does It?

Self-harm (also known as self-mutilation or self-injury) occurs when someone intentionally hurts themselves. Some methods of self-harm include:

  • Cutting with a razor, knife, or other sharp objects
  • Burning or scalding oneself
  • Picking skin or pulling scabs
  • Banging the head against a hard surface or hitting oneself with hard objects
  • Inserting dangerous items inside oneself
  • Pulling out hair (known as trichotillomania)
  • Ingesting inedible items/liquids

Some people use one method to harm themselves. Others use a variety of methods. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to obtain accurate statistics on self-harm. That’s because many people engage in these behaviors privately and shamefully, and they don’t share their struggles.

That said, studies examining young adults show that up to 20% of individuals report at least one episode of self-harm. The age of onset varies, but it usually occurs during adolescence.

Provide Temporary Relief For Painful Emotions

Self-harm is associated with several mental health disorders, including:

  • Major depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Substance use disorders

People struggling with mental illnesses often experience intense emotions that can, at times, feel impossible to regulate. Self-harm serves multiple purposes in mitigating painful emotions. 

For example, some people use self-harm to direct emotional pain into more concrete, physical pain. The physical pain often feels less uncontrollable and chaotic than the abstract emotional symptoms. 

Likewise, even though self-harm seems painful, the act itself can sometimes feel pleasurable. At first, this strategy may seem counter-intuitive. But there’s a reason many people gravitate towards masochistic activities that induce pain: rigorous exercise, hot saunas, deep-tissue massages, very spicy foods, tattoos and piercings, and sex that includes BDSM. 

All pain releases endorphins, which naturally block out more pain. Inadvertently, these endorphins can also induce pleasure. In other words, the brain can code certain pains as pleasure- and the brain can do this in cases of repeated self-harm.  

Feel Something When Feeling Numb

Some people may use self-harm as a way to experience something when they feel numb or empty inside. Numbness is a common symptom associated with issues related to depression, PTSD, personality disorders, and eating disorders. It can also occur in situations pertaining to trauma and grief. 

Self-harm can prove that someone is “real” or “alive.” If someone feels chronically numb, the legitimacy of these feelings can be powerful. 

Of course, numbness can feel disturbing. Some people may believe something is wrong with them because they think they are supposed to feel a specific way. But emotions do not work in such a predictable fashion. People can’t control how they feel. Likewise, they can’t necessarily predict how specific life situations will impact them. 

Punish Themselves 

Many people struggling with self-harm also struggle with low self-esteem. When someone has low self-esteem, they often feel unlovable and unworthy. They may doubt that others care about them, and they may sabotage efforts towards success and happiness.

Self-harm can essentially serve as a punishment. For example, if someone has a fight with their significant other and says something they later regret, they might punish themselves with self-harm. Subsequently, if someone hates their body, self-harm can reinforce this hatred. 

The self-harm acts as an attempt to shame oneself into changing unwanted behaviors. Yet, this method is rarely effective. Sustainable change usually comes from a place of love and acceptance. It doesn’t come from a mindset of self-loathing and shame.

Sense Of Control

When feeling out-of-control, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and stressed. You may not know how to cope with these intense feelings. Self-harm can provide a semblance of control during these vulnerable times.

Of course, control itself is a myth. People have very little say in how the sequence of events in their lives unfolds. While this may seem troubling, it can also be very freeing. In learning how to let go of control, we can learn to move into a space of acceptance.

Emotional Expression

Many people never learn how to express emotions adequately as children. Maybe they were told not to cry when they felt sad. Perhaps they were dismissed for feelings related to fear or anger. Regardless of the context, when people struggle with emotional expression, they often internalize the belief that feelings are wrong, bad, or unnecessary.

Self-harm can help people express their emotions. It clearly shows that someone is in pain. And some people opt to self-harm in visible, apparent ways as a method for showing they need help.

group therapy session

What To Do If You Struggle With Self-Harm

Self-harm is undoubtedly dangerous and concerning. Even if someone doesn’t feel suicidal, self-harm can (intentionally or unintentionally) cause serious emotional and physical problems. Furthermore, the longer someone does it, the harder it may be to stop.

With that in mind, it’s possible to stop self-harming. Therapy can help work through the triggers and patterns. It also provides a safe, nurturing space to learn new coping skills.

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