Putting oneself in a situation where they will be hurt, physically or emotionally, is against our basic instincts. Most of us do everything we can to avoid pain and unpleasant circumstances. However, for people who struggle with self-injury, this is not always the case.
Self-injury is intentional, physical harm a person inflicts on themselves to find an emotional release. The most commonly known form of self-injury is cutting, but some also engage in burning, carving, hair pulling, eraser burning and more. Even drug and alcohol misuse can be viewed as a form of self-harm if a person has similar intentions for it. So why do people self-harm, and why is it harmful?
The main reason people engage in self-injurious behaviors is that they are looking for an emotional release but don’t have the proper coping skills to accomplish this in a health way. It often serves as a way for them to “take control of” their emotions through this false resolution. “There is an intense buildup of negative emotions leading up to the self-injurious act,” says Kala Hight, LPC-MHSP, Therapist for Centerstone. “The self-inflicted pain releases these emotions, even if only for a short period of time.”
Any stressors can lead to self-injury – isolation and loneliness, family stress, low self-esteem, relationships stress, work or school performance and more. “The motivation to self-harm is less about the specific stressor and more about the lack of coping skills,” says Kala Hight.
Risk factors for engaging in self-harm include past trauma, substance use problems, being in an environment where it is normalized or romanticized and, ultimately, a lack of coping skills. Self-injury can be either learned or discovered on one’s own – there is no specific formula for starting.
It is important to also note that people who engage in self-injury most often do so only with the intention to hurt themselves and release pain, not to end their own lives. While it can correlate with suicidal ideation, it’s not an automatic connection.
It is crucial to note a few myths surrounding self-injury and to speak truths against them. The belief that self-injury is just a way to get attention is completely false. “If anything, people want to hide their habit as best as they can. Self-injury should always be seen as something to help people overcome and not something to shame them for,” says Kala Hight.
There is also the myth that only teenage girls engage in self-injury. The truth is, people of any gender and any age can harm themselves – there is no one demographic.
Generally, a person’s main takeaway from self-harming is the immediate positive emotional release it provides. “The emotional release you get from self-harm is very short-term as you will, in fact, have even stronger negative emotions, such as guilt and shame, soon after,” says Kala Hight. In the end, all self-injury does is reinforce itself as a habit.
Aside from physical effects, self-injury can make you more withdrawn, isolating you from friends and family. People who self-harm also tend to avoid places where they will have to show their damaged body parts, such as the beach. Some even cover their arms and legs no matter how hot it is so they can avoid revealing this part of themselves. This kind of hiding and avoiding further isolates them from the people who care about them.
Like any bad habit or addiction, recovery is possible, and there are multiple ways to reach it.
- Therapy should be sought out in any case. Therapists provide you with professional insight and will help you develop healthy coping skills, so that you can process your emotional pain in healthy ways.
- Urge resistance is another key skill you have to build. You must prepare before the urge hits, as it can be hard to overcome it with rational thought in the moment. Be prepared with other activities you can engage in when the urge comes. Then, when the urge comes, do anything you can to interrupt it. Acknowledge that it’s there, but engage in something else long enough for it to go away.
- Create support from the people around you. It is important to surround yourself with multiple people who understand the challenges you face and won’t judge you no matter what you say.
- Reflect on your progress. Track everything, even when you didn’t resist the urge. It’s important to be mindful of the circumstances surrounding both the times you self-harm and the times you resist the urge.