Self-harm - what is it?

Self-harm is a word that is being used more and more in our culture particularly amongst our younger generation, but what is it and why do people do it?

A common misconception is that it is only something very troubled people do and it involves cutting themselves, focusing particularly on their arms. In fact, self-harm can take many different forms such as:

  • cutting in many different areas of the body
  • burning skin
  • pinching
  • scratching
  • biting
  • picking at scabs
  • picking at the scalp
  • pinching the skin
  • banging and hitting yourself.

Self-harm also reaches wider than the above. It is harming yourself with purpose, so this can also include starving or binging, over exercising, drinking or drugging to excess, speaking harshly to yourself or anything that involves you actively causing harm to yourself.

Often people say to me that they wouldn't dream of inflicting any of the above to others so why is it acceptable to do it to ourselves? Not only that, what purpose does it serve?

Self-harm at its root is a way of protecting ourselves and believe it or not, it is a way of us trying to look after ourselves. As human beings when we are hurt in some way it is appropriate for us to have an emotional response, if this emotional need is not met then we will find a way of coping with the pain. Now you may think 'how can inflicting pain physically help with emotional pain?.

Well often it is a distraction. If my arm stings or my tummy hurts from starving myself, then I am distracted from my emotional pain and don't have to face it. Self-harm is also triggered when we are not happy within ourselves, furthermore It may be a punishment because of something we did or didn't do. We may have feelings related to not being good enough or not being worthy enough and so we cope with that by hurting ourselves further. Self-harm can also be a release for people. When we experience emotions they need to be processed and then let go, if this does not happen then damage can occur (i.e trauma). Clients have described feeling relief when they see blood or feel physical pain, however it is a momentary fix and the effect does not last as the feelings have not been addressed.

Telling yourself or someone to just stop self-harming is often not helpful, this is because it has been used as a way to cope with life and so taking it away without anything to replace it can be terrifying. Slowly but surely needs to be the approach. The person needs to find an appropriate way of expressing and processing their feelings. This could be through counselling, having a good support network of people, using a journal or art to express your emotions. 

If you are reading this and you know that self-harm is affecting your life and wellbeing then please do not suffer in silence and speak to someone.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Ashford, Kent, TN24 8TY
Written by Honeysett Counselling Services, BA.hons, Adv,Dip,Couns,MBACP All counsellors are verified
Ashford, Kent, TN24 8TY

I am a BACP member working in private practice in Ashford and Faversham. I am experienced and work with a vast range of issues. I have recently run a emotional eating course and an anger management course which have both been successful. I love working with people and seeing them come into freedom through counselling.

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