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Why Do People Self Harm?


young person struggling with self harm behavior

Self harm is a concept that both impacts people and is hard for some to understand. Some can’t imagine going out of their way to hurt themselves on purpose, however, the origin and reason behind self harming behaviors is typically more complex than simply wanting to hurt oneself. Self harming can be life threatening and is a situation to take very seriously. Read on to learn more about why people self harm and how you can support yourself or others struggling with forms of self injury.


What is Self Harm?


Self harm is the act of purposefully inflicting pain or bodily harm towards oneself, usually as a means of coping with emotional pain. Behaviors can look like cutting or carving the skin with sharp objects, pulling out hair, burning oneself, engaging in risky/dangerous behavior, using drugs and alcohol to excess, eating disorder behavior (restricting food/eating until extreme discomfort or vomiting), and self-sabotaging behaviors in school, work, and relationships.


Self harm often provides temporary relief and is an outward expression of internal pain. The emotional pain relief is often fleeting, which means that it can become a long term coping mechanism when someone feels distressed, if not intervened when it first begins.


Why Do People Self Harm?


There are various reasons why people engage in self harm, but at the crux of the behavior is often deep emotional pain that someone feels unable to cope with. The pain can be a result of many different factors. Some of the most common reasons people engage in self harm is due to experiencing trauma, going through abuse, bullying, low self-esteem or body image issues, loneliness, and struggling with mental illness.


On the other end of the coin, there are people who self injure out of feeling emotionally numb. Instead of feeling their emotions intensely, they might be emotionally blocked and use self harm behaviors as a way to feel something, as they often see feeling pain as a better outcome than feeling nothing at all.


For some, self harm is a means of harnessing control. Those who experience trauma often feel extremely out of control with what is currently happening to them or what has happened in the past. Someone might look at self injury as one thing in their life they have control over.


While people of any age can and do engage in self harm, studies show that young people and young adults are most likely to struggle with self harming behaviors.


A common misconception about self injury is that people who self harm are doing so for attention. Many times, people are self harming to externalize the severe emotional distress they are feeling on the inside. They likely do not know how to healthily process their emotions in a healthier way and resort to hurting themselves.


For some, it can be a cry for help and that is not something to shame someone for or claim they are only doing it for attention. Sometimes, people struggle to ask for help and accusing them of seeking attention might push them further into self harming behaviors.


It’s important to note that while some who self harm might be also struggling with suicidal ideation, not every person who self harms has suicidal thoughts or intent. In fact, self harm is sometimes referred to a non suicidal self injury (NSSI). Accusing people who self harm of attempting suicide, while it might be good intentioned, can actually make a person feel worse, enhance guilt they might already be feeling, and can shame them into not seeking help.


Getting Help for Self Harm


Self injury can be a scary situation to go through, whether you are experiencing it yourself, or know a loved one is self harming. There are steps people can take to diminish the urge to self harm.


If you are struggling with self injury


If you feel safe to do so, open up to a trusted adult. This can be a family member, teacher, good friend, romantic partner, or anyone else you feel safe to be vulnerable with about what you’re going through. If friends and family are not safe to open up to, a therapist can offer a safe place to start the healing process.


If you are struggling with self harm, oftentimes, the best course of action is working with a qualified mental health professional who knows how to help those who are experiencing self injury behaviors.


Cognitive behavioral therapy can often be helpful as it’s a form of therapy that helps reframe negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself and develop skills to cope in healthy ways when negative thoughts arise.


Be gentle with yourself. People don’t self injure for no reason and you’ve likely been through extreme pain at some point in your life. Despite the stigma that exists around self harm, you are worthy of empathy and compassion from others and yourself.


If a loved one is struggling with self injury


It can feel powerless to watch someone you love struggle with mental health problems. Self harm in particular can feel scary because there are often visible evidence of your loved one’s suffering. While there is not much you can do in taking their pain away, you can be of support to them in doing your best to show up for them without judgement or shaming language and validate their feelings.


You may want to resist any urge to give your loved one “tough love” in this case, especially because they are likely already being tough on themselves. If you are unsure how you can properly help your loved one, don’t be afraid to ask them what you can do to help them feel loved and supported.


People can need different things when they are going through a hard time, so it never hurts to ask how you can help so you can show up in the way that is most meaningful to them.


Healing From Self Harm


Struggling with self injury is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a very real indication that you are going through some big feelings and need support in navigating your experiences. It’s possible to live a life without self harm and find productive ways to cope with emotional dysregulation. Asking for help is the brave first step towards healing both visible and invisible scars.


If you or someone you love needs immediate support, you can text home to 741741, which will connect you with the Crisis Help Line.



Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Kayla Tricaso is the Office Manager and Patient Intake Specialist at Modern Intimacy. When she is not working at Modern Intimacy, Kayla is in graduate school to become a therapist who specializes in trauma.



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