What is self-harm?
Self-harm acts are actions done to the surface of the body by a person to relieve or cope with distressful or intolerable feelings. These actions can result in tissue damage, sensations of pain, and may include bleeding or bruising.
Self-harm acts are different from:
- Accidental actions that result in injury (e.g., cutting one’s finger while preparing food)
- Alterations to the body surface that are done for cosmetic reasons (e.g., tattoos)
- Actions taken to end one’s life (suicide)
In the past, self-harm acts were often grouped with suicide. It is now recognized that
self-harm is not an act to end one’s life. It is an act to keep oneself alive – by providing a way to cope with and manage emotional pain.
It is important to be aware, though, that a person who is self-harming may also be at risk for suicide. Intolerable distress can lead to both self-harm and suicide.
Why does a person self-harm?
It can be very difficult for people who have not engaged in self-harm to understand why someone would engage in actions to elicit a painful experience.
Self-harm acts are not done to experience physical pain, they are actions done to block emotional pain.
A person may engage in self-harm to:
- feel better or experience a positive feeling
- deal with past experiences of being treated badly (e.g., abuse, bullying)
- lessen guilt, shame and self-hatred
- keep themselves from harming others
Self-harm acts help a person to cope by:
- making emotional pain real by making it external, visible and tangible
- replacing emotional pain with physical pain that seems more real and manageable
- being self-punishment for a perceived weakness or wrongdoing (response to self-hatred or self-blame)
- releasing tension from bottled up feelings that might otherwise explode
- reducing numbness and providing a sense of being real
- triggering positive feelings (through the release of endorphins)
- fostering emotional healing through physical healing
- being a way to self-nurture (take care of oneself)
Self-harm acts are often described by experts as being impulsive and as occurring immediately after a stressful experience. However, in a study on experiences of self harm, the participants reported that very few of their self-harm acts were done immediately after something that had just happened. Most of their self-harm acts occurred after situations where they had spent some time reflecting and thinking about a past troubling experience.
“A lot of times it’s just…being alone for hours…with your thoughts."2
Self-harm is most often a very private act that takes place when the person is alone. Wounds or scars may be covered because of shame and fear of being judged by others if their self-harm was revealed.
Self-harm acts are sometimes done in front of other people to communicate intensity of distress, a need for support and help or to avoid hurting someone else.
Self-harm can bring instant relief; however it can complicate life and presents risks to health. Learn about managing self-harm.