Why Do People Self-Harm?

Possibly the first question we ask ourselves when we discover that someone we care about is self-harming, is ‘WHY?!’ It would be such a relief if there were one simple answer to this question, because then we could do something about it. The truth is that, although there are always powerful reasons behind why someone hurts themselves, every person who is self-harming will be doing it for their own, very specific reasons.

However, there are some general theories that might help us understand what someone who self-harms is trying to achieve by hurting themselves, and some ideas that might help us understand what they are going through.

Trying to understand…

How many times have you – or someone you know – got so angry and frustrated that you banged your hand on the table to express your feelings? Have you ever punched a pillow in anger, or struck a wall? Have you slammed doors, or smashed a plate during an argument? Have you ever pinched yourself, or bitten your lip to keep from crying?

If self-harm is something you don’t understand, you can probably at least relate to the occasional temptation to blow off emotional steam through physical means. Some people go to the gym to exercise away their stress. Some eat or drink too much or smoke to relieve pressure, some drive too fast or gamble to numb themselves from their problems. Some people might work too hard to distract themselves from problems or feelings they cannot bear to face.

Self-harm, although it is more shocking, is very like these ‘ordinary’ forms of self-harm. Like drink or drugs, intentionally causing oneself pain self may help a person block out painful feelings. Like taking risks or gambling, it may provide danger and distraction, and provide a high.

But why self-harm?

People who self-harm will often have a heightened experience of what we described above, because they find it easier to deal with tangible, physical pain than intangible, emotional pain. Self-harming helps them to release unbearable tension, which may be caused by anxiety, grief or anger. It puts their pain ‘outside’ where it feels easier to cope with.

For others it relieves feelings of guilt or shame because they use their injuries to punish themselves for being bad in some way. Quite often it will be impossible for us on the outside to see what is bad about this person, but their concern is very real to them.

Sometimes a person’s self-harm is a ‘cry-for-help’; a way of showing (even to themselves) that they have suffered and are in pain. It is hard for us to understand that self-harm can be nurturing for someone, that it is their way of looking after themselves by admitting that they do have pain inside. Often we think that ‘just’ being a cry for help makes self-harm less deserving of serious attention. But if someone is going as far as to cause themselves physical harm, their cry for attention to their pain is worth giving time to.

There are as many reasons behind self-harm as there are self-harmers. The only way we can really understand why someone is helping is to ask them to explain to us. It may be hard for that person to put into words exactly why they self-harm, but just being asked can make them feel like someone cares, and encourage them to talk about why they are behaving as they are.