It’s a subject that is often avoided.
Trigger warning: This post discusses self-harm in detail. If you feel you are at risk of being triggered or upset by this topic, please do not read any further.
Self-harm is often seen as a taboo subject. Many just can’t wrap their heads around it; why would anyone deliberately injure themselves?
Let’s start with the basics: What is self-harm?
According to the NHS, self-harm is “when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It’s usually a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress”.
Methods of self-harm can include cutting, burning, or picking the skin, hitting/punching oneself, or even poisoning oneself. Some people also identify smoking and binge-drinking as methods of self-harm.
Now we have identified what it is, let’s look at why people do it.
I started self-harming when I was 12 years old. I can’t remember the first time, or even why I started, just an overwhelming feeling of internal pain. Unfortunately, I have continued to self-harm throughout my teens and adult life.
For me, self-harm has become a habitual reaction to feeling overwhelmed. The act of self-harm has a calming effect on me; a literal bloodletting to release pressure, to drain my body of the boiling emotions it is feeling.
However, this is just my story. Today, I’d like to share the stories of various courageous contributors, who have kindly offered to explain their reasons for self-harming, in order to educate and inform those who have trouble understanding why it happens.
“I started self-injuring at age 13, I am 20 now. I did it to punish myself for screwing up so much, eventually it morphed into me thinking I deserve it, not just as a punishment. I still do it because it is an addiction. It’s almost like crack. It’s like an impulse to buy something you see in the store, and you can’t resist it. I am however still trying to stop. I hope one day I will.”
“I have Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (also known as Borderline Personality Disorder). As such I have serious issues trying to deal with my emotions. When emotions become too strong for me to cope with I turn inwardly aggressive towards myself. Sometimes reactionally, sometimes deliberate. I believe that the reason I turn it inward is because I am empathetic. I could just as easily turn round and cause harm to someone else. However I understand it isn’t the fault of anyone else and that to react in such a way would be incredibly damaging and not just physically. Also, I could destroy things but don’t. For the most part, I know breaking something will only leave me hurting more and leave me with more work to do or, again, hurt someone else mentally. Instead I focus all of my emotional outbursts at myself. I am the thing that matters least in this world. It doesn’t matter if I am damaged as I am worthless and broken already.”
“I started at 11. I did it til I was 28 (over 4 years clean now). I started because I wanted to hurt myself because I felt like I deserved it. I kept going because I wanted to show my pain in a way that was visible to myself so that maybe I could understand it. As I got older it became a coping strategy that I didn’t know how to stop but didn’t really know why I was doing it anymore.”
“I started around age 15. I think I felt that I had done something wrong or I felt really guilty or ashamed… And it was a form of self-punishment. It got worse when I dated someone who kept telling me I deserved to be punished for various things. I’m now 23 and haven’t self-harmed in about two years or so.”
“I was 13 when I started, so it would have been September or October of 2009 because I’d just started secondary school. All my childhood I was picked on and very insecure, so while I’d thought about it when I was 12 and still in primary school I held out because I hoped secondary school would be better (it got called ugly on the first day). I started looking for a sign not to do it but got signs to do it, so it became something I’d do when I was upset or angry and eventually it became addictive. The surface issue would have been bullying and insecurity, but I was also living with undiagnosed and untreated anxiety and depression. While I wouldn’t blame people in school for why I started, I think people should be kinder because my case is a classic case of not knowing what someone is going through. Thankfully I’ve since gotten help, treatment, and mental health diagnosis so I don’t self-harm anymore.”
“I started when I was 15. It was mainly an anger management thing. I struggle with anger and it was the only way I felt I could get rid of my rage. I haven’t cut since the beginning of this year and now if I get overwhelmed with anything I try and write or colour or draw. Basically, occupy my hands with any task.”
“For me, self-harming is a stress release. When I have a bad, but not too bad, mental health day and my head is just loud and noisy, I use self-harm to shut out my brain, because I can focus on the pain and the act of self-harming and it somehow rebalances me. For me, it is a way to get my brain to shut up for a bit and to get my body to work together.”
“It was a coping mechanism. Physical pain hurts less than the constant thoughts that one’s life is not worth shit. It’s a manifestation of internal pain, and likely a lack of control over life as well.”
“I self-harm to punish myself for being angry because I’m not allowed to feel that. I self-harm to feel when I am numb and to stop feeling when overwhelmed. I self-harm because I think I’m probably addicted. I self-harm because I can’t think of what else to do to get the pain out of my head.”
I hope that reading these stories has given you a more in-depth perspective on the varied reasons why some people self-harm. Many participants spoke of it being a form of self-punishment, or a way of dealing with emotions with an internal locus of control, to avoid directing the emotions externally towards someone or something else.
Now that we’ve looked at some testimonies that explain why people self-harm, let’s look at some common misconceptions.
There is often a misconception that everyone who self-harms is suicidal. Whilst it is true that some who self-harm are also suicidal, this is not always the case and is often not the case.
Self-harm is more commonly a coping mechanism; a way to get through the emotional pain, rather than to end one’s life.
That being said, self-harm can be lethal. Even if someone doesn’t intend to take their own life, that’s not to say that they won’t accidentally harm themselves in a way or to the extent that they risk death or serious injury.
This is why it’s so important for us to open up the conversation about self-harm, and recognise that it is not an “attention-seeking” behaviour. To label it as such is incredibly harmful, and can cause people to hide the fact they are self-harming, rather than seek help.
So what now?
If you are concerned that someone might be self-harming, you may wish to have a supportive conversation with them. You can also signpost them to various support services, such as:
- Their GP
- A mental health professional
- Samaritans – call 116 123 (open 24 hours a day), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit your local Samaritans branch
- Mind – call 0300 123 3393 or text 86463 (9am to 6pm on weekdays)
- Harmless – email email@example.com
- National Self Harm Network forums
- YoungMinds Parents Helpline – call 0808 802 5544 (9.30am to 4pm on weekdays)
Do you have any experience with self-harm, or the stigma surrounding it? Tell your story in the comments.