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Why people self-harm and how others react to it

Self-harming is a complex behaviour that is often misunderstood. Many people find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to harm themselves, as it is widely known that human beings have evolved to protect themselves from injury. The idea that someone would want to purposely harm oneself feels irrational.

So why do people engage in self-injury?

There is no single explanation behind self-harming, as people may engage in this behaviour for different reasons. For instance, self-injury could be a way to express extremely distressing emotions that an individual is experiencing. In other cases, self-harming may be a cry for help. Furthermore, some people may self-harm in order to “feel something” when they are emotionally numb. Additionally, some people may think that they are inherently bad so they may engage in self-harming because they feel that they need to be punished. Consequently, self-harming is not just an irrational behaviour - it is an expression of distress that reflects an individual’s difficulties.

Regrettably, people around those who self-harm tend to react in a way that is not helpful. For instance, some people may condemn that behaviour, uttering statements such as “how can you do that to yourself?”. They may blame the person who self-harms for upsetting others. Alternatively, some people may ignore self-harming behaviour thinking that those who do it “are only seeking attention”. Those who self-harm may be strongly encouraged to stop doing it. All the aforementioned responses are likely to make people who self-harm feel worse about themselves. In turn, this is likely to overwhelm them, thereby exacerbating their self-harming behaviour.

Many people have asked me the question: What shall I do if someone close to me self-harms? To begin with, even if self-harming may be difficult to understand, it is obvious that those who self-harm experience a high level of suffering. So, the best way to respond to self-harming is to keep calm and listen to the individual in an empathic and non-judgemental way. Additionally, due to the complexity of self-injury, accessing competent professional help is paramount. However, many people who self-harm feel ashamed about what they do and try to conceal any signs of self-harming from others. For those individuals, it may feel overwhelming to reach out for help. Therefore, when supporting someone who self-harms, it is crucial to assist them in the process of getting professional help.

In conclusion, self-harming can be seen as an expression of a variety of painful emotions that an individual is experiencing and that requires professional help. I hope that this article not only contributes to a better understanding of self-harming but most importantly, I hope that it encourages those who self-harm not to suffer in silence. 

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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