November 8, 2019

Understanding Self-harm

Abuse & Trauma
Anxiety & Depression

elf-harm is, for the most part, another taboo topic in society today. It’s a topic that’s uncomfortable for many, as it should be. Hurting oneself is serious and alarming, so it makes sense that it’s not something we approach lightly. It may not even be something that we know how to approach. It’s hard to talk about, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it.

The term self-harm or self-injury is an umbrella term for someone intentionally hurting themselves. Probably the most common methods of self-harm would include cutting and hitting oneself, but there are a lot of other ways people might hurt themselves as well. The important thing to look for is harmful behavior that is intentional and self-inflicted.

Why do people self-harm?

Because it is so counter to what we consider our natural instincts, (i.e., to protect and care for ourselves), it can be difficult for some to understand why a person might choose to hurt him or herself. But there is always an underlying need that the person is trying to meet. It’s important to acknowledge that everyone’s story and reasoning might be different. I want to address some of the common reasons I’ve heard that people self-harm (and the needs underneath them) which hopefully allows for more understanding and clarity around this difficult topic.

As a release

For some, self-harm can feel like a release. We’ve probably all experienced the state of overwhelm that comes when emotions are running high or something just feels like too much. We all need strategies to regulate and manage our emotions when they come up. Sometimes hurting oneself feels like a way to release and express that hurt,anger or sadness that is just festering. If self-harm is the release method someone has found, we need to recognize and validate that emotional release/expression and see it as a real need. What we need to do is explore safer and more helpful methods to meet it.

As punishment

For others, self-harm can feel like a deserved punishment. If someone is plagued by self-disdain or dislike, they might feel they deserve a punishment or pain. Self-harm often seems like a simple solution. If this is the case, this person has a real need to express feelings of guilt or conviction. In my experience, those feelings of guilt or conviction often don’t need to be there – they are often disproportionate or unnecessary once we can do some reality testing and look at the situation that is distressing the person. Whether appropriate or not, though, this person is experiencing intense feelings and needs a means of expression.

As a proof

Sometimes, when one’s feelings of despair, anger or sadness are so intense, it becomes extremely frustrating that others cannot see them. Because we can’t see those feelings and that kind of internal pain, it can be easier to ignore it, to minimize it, or even simply to not notice it. This can feel incredibly invalidating. In this instance, people tend to self-harm to give themselves and/or others proof – some kind of visible sign – of their invisible, internal turmoil. The need to be seen, heard, validated, and cared for is real and sometimes, people feel it takes self-harm to get others to notice and meet those needs. We all need to take one another’s feelings seriously, and if you feel like that’s not happening for you, tell someone. A counselor would be a great person to work with you to both validate your feelings and figure out other ways to get your needs met.

As a means of suicide

Lastly, sometimes self-harm is actually a suicide attempt or steps towards a suicide attempt. All self-harm is alarming and needs to be taken seriously. If self-harm is being done as a means of suicide, this person needs immediate help and care. See this blog post for a list of resources available to you if you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts or feelings of suicide.

Self-harm of any kind is serious and always points to an underlying need that isn’t being met. If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, don’t hesitate to contact one of these help-lines, us here at Optimum Joy, or another counselor in your area. We are here for you and would love to work with you or your loved one to explore your feelings and experiences in order to figure out how we can best meet your needs.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

Other Articles by Our Therapists

We can help you get started

Ready to set up your first appointment?

If you haven’t been in touch with us yet, you can get started by filling out our intake form.