Understanding self-harm

Self-harm is becoming more and more common in our community and specifically amongst our young people. It can be very distressing and confusing to those who discover their child or loved one is engaging in such acts. Despite its prevalence, there are many myths and negative stereotypes around self-harm. This article has been written in an attempt to dispel some of those myths and stereotypes and help those affected by self injurious behaviour gain a deeper understanding of it.

 The myths and negative stereotyping of people include:

  • Self-harm is an attention seeking act.
  • People who self-harm are suicidal.
  • Self-harm is a teenage thing and something the person will grow out of.
  • People who self-harm could stop if they wanted to.
  • People who self-harm have been abused.
  • The wound isn't that bad so the problem can't be that bad.
  • People self-harm to fit in or be seen as 'cool'.
  • Self-harm is when you cut yourself.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm can be defined as 'the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue without suicidal intent'. There are many ways people self harm, these include burning, scalding, banging or scratching one's own body, breaking bones, hair pulling, swallowing objects or toxic substances, hitting and/or biting oneself. However, it is reported that the most common form of self harm is cutting though there are some gender differences with this. For instance it is reported that women are more likely to cut and burn themselves, whilst men have a higher tendency to hit and burn themselves.

There has been the belief that only certain people engage in self injurious acts, however, though self-harm is seen more commonly in young people with ages averaging between 14 and 24, it is important to highlight that all kinds of people self-harm, whatever their age, employment status, cultural or religious background.

One of the biggest questions people ask is why some people self-harm? Why would someone want to hurt themselves in such a way? There are many myths about why people self-harm some include it being a suicidal act, it being apart of the 'Goth' subculture, because of mental health problems, attention seeking, for pleasure or to manipulate. These myths are widely used to explain by people self harm, however, they are myths and that is important to note.

People self-harm for a number of different reasons and some of these can be complex and difficult to understand. These include:

 Childhood events:

  • sexual abuse
  • extreme lack of communication
  • loss/separation
  • parental illness/alcoholism
  • witnessing family violence
  • excessively high expectations
  • bullying and rejection by peers
  • racism
  • fear and shame about puberty or sexuality
  • physical abuse
  • neglect
  • emotional abuse.

 Adult events:

  • abusive relationships with partner
  • rape/sexual abuse
  • lack of support/communication
  • loss of baby/infertility
  • incarceration
  • relationship breakdown
  • own serious illness.

 Feelings associated with self-harm

  • emotional pain
  • self-hatred
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • neediness
  • regulation of unpleasant self-states such as dissociation (disconnection from reality) or depersonalisation (feeling unreal).

 Functions of self-harm

  • fear of abandonment and communication to others
  • seeking care and nurturing from self and others
  • avoidance of emotional pain – enables focus on physical pain
  • punishment of self
  • assurance of being alive and feeling real
  • stop flashbacks
  • sense of release
  • to gain control over own life, and emotions
  • obtain relief from emotional distress.

 Some quotes from people who self-harm

“Pain works. Pain heals. If I had never cut myself, I probably wouldn’t still be around today. My parents didn’t help me, religion didn’t help me, school didn’t help me but self-harm did. And I’m doing pretty well for myself these days. Don’t get me wrong, not in a heartbeat do I think that self-harm is a good or positive thing, or anything besides a heart-breaking desperate act that saddens me every time I hear about it. But there is a reason why people do it.”

“My emotions can vary rapidly and be very intense. If in an emotionally charged situation, I will either during or shortly after harm myself. I’m not good at dealing with emotions or communicating mine to others.”

“I don’t deal with daily stress well, so when extra events occur however big or small, my tension levels rise, resulting in my needing a “release”. Self-harm has proven to be most successful in dealing with this.”

 What do I do if I find a person a care for self-harms?

 Unhelpful responses:

  • being condemned, dismissed or punished
  • shock, fear, misunderstanding
  • excessive control or monitoring
  • being labelled as crazy, disturbed and not being responsible
  • self-harm not being addressed
  • telling people it’s wrong and they should stop.

 Helpful responses:

  • acceptance of person
  • seeking to understand the issues underlying self-harm
  • provide necessary medical care
  • acknowledge that it is their way of coping with distress
  • exploring alternatives to self-harm
  • don’t focus on stopping the self-harm.

 Are there alternatives are there to self harm that support painful emotions and experiences?

Some people find the following helpful to help support themselves through difficult times:

  • rubbing ice instead of cutting
  • flicking an elastic band against your arm
  • hitting a punch bag to vent anger/frustration
  • physical exercise
  • talking things through with a friend
  • writing journals/poetry
  • drawing/painting/photography
  • self-nurture/relaxation.

Self-harm is often seen as a taboo subject but it doesn't have to be. If you need to discuss self-harm or the issues underlying self harm, seek professional help from a counsellor or GP.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Sarah Hutchinson MBACP Accredited

As a therapeutic Counsellor, I have met many people who self-harm and understand the myths and untruths around this 'taboo' subject. This article has been written in a clear way to help dispel some of the myths about such acts and offers an understanding into the functions of and the reasons why people do it.… Read more

Written by Sarah Hutchinson MBACP Accredited

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