Why do People Self-Harm? When Feeling Bad Means Feeling Better

Let's Talk About Self-Harm. Why Feeling Bad Means Feeling Better

We all have battles that feel bigger than us sometimes and we all have characteristic ways of dealing with emotional pain, physical pain, shame, regret or guilt. There is a full bank of very normal human experiences and emotions that can threaten to break any one of us. Sometimes, they last for too long. When it feels as though there is no relief, it can drive even the strongest of us to try anything to get the pain to stop. 

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is any deliberate injury made to the self, by the self. It doesn’t include anything that is socially sanctioned, such as piercings or tattoos. People who self-harm don’t want to die. What they want is for the pain to stop. Most self-harm happens without any thoughts of suicide, but it can predict suicidal behaviour in the future. The problem is that while self-harm provides a temporary escape from emotional pain, it may feed a need for the escape to be more permanent.

Who self-harms? 

The group of people who self-harm is a diverse one. They are men and women of all backgrounds, races and ages. They are people like any one of us – the people we live with, work with and love. Some people who self-harm have anxiety, depression, an eating disorder or borderline personality disorder, but sometimes self-harm exists on its own. 

Self-harm appears to be more common among those who are homosexual, bisexual or questioning their sexuality.

There are a number of ways that people self-harm, including cutting, burning, scratching and banging or hitting. Women were more likely to use cutting, while men were more likely to hit themselves or burn themselves. 

Research of adolescents and young people who self-harm found that on average, they have about five non-suicidal thought of harming themselves each week. The thoughts tend to last between 1–30 minutes. On average, people who self-harm seem to hurt themselves on average between one and two times a week. 

Thoughts of self-harm rarely come with suicidal thoughts, but they do happen with thoughts of drug or alcohol use about 15-20% of the time, and thoughts of and bingeing or purging about 15-20% of the time. Despite these stats, most people who self-harm are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they hurt themselves. 

Let’s clear up a couple of myths.

The idea that self-harm is done for attention or to exploit the ones who care isn’t supported by the research. Although a very small number of people might hurt themselves for attention, this is rarely the case. Most people don’t disclose their self-harm. It is often done very much in private as a way to quickly relieve overwhelming negative feelings. 

Another common myth is that self-harm is often driven by (or caused by) childhood sexual abuse. Again, this has not been supported by the research. In an analysis of a number of studies, only a very small relationship was found between child sexual abuse and self-harm.

Why do people self-harm?

Everything we do is driven by a need. The needs we have are always valid, but the behaviours we choose aren’t always going to be the best or most effective way to meet that need. Needs can be voracious, relentless and compelling. When a need is powerful enough, as needs will tend to be for all of us from time to time, it is understandable that somebody might call on whatever means available to them to end the pain of that unmet need. 

Research has found that self-harm can be an attempt to fulfil a number of valid, powerful needs:

  1. To provide relief from persistent negative thoughts.

    When negative thoughts are persistent and powerful, the pain can feel overwhelming. There is a growing body of research that claims self-harm is a strategy people use to distract themselves from negative, painful thoughts about themselves, things that have happened or about self-injury itself.

  2. To provide relief from overwhelming negative feelings.

    People who self-harm tend to experience intense negative feelings immediately before they hurt themselves. In particular, feelings of anger, self-hatred or rejection have been associated with a significantly greater likelihood of self-harm. After an episode of self-harm, those negative feelings are decreased and there are increased feelings of calm and relief. The relief from the negative feelings, however temporary, can be powerful enough to drive future episodes of self-harm.

  3. As an expression of anger towards the self, or a form of self-punishment.

    Self-criticism seems to play a pivotal role in self-harm. In a review of a number of studies, it was found that found that slightly more than half the people who self-harm do it as an expression of anger towards themselves or as a way to punish themselves. 

Why self-harm brings relief.

The experience of physical pain seems to soothe emotional pain. Images of the brains of people who self-harm have found that physical pain leads to less activity in the part of the brain that is associated with negative emotions (anterior cingulate gyrus and the amygdala). 

Research has also found something interesting that seems to happen when physical pain stops – emotional pain also starts to ease. For any of us, having a bad experience, and then having that bad experience taken away will bring overwhelming relief which feels better than before the bad experience. Let’s say that someone trustworthy tells you that you have one week to live. Then, the next day they tell you that they got it wrong and that you’re absolutely fine. The relief and joy you feel when the bad experience (thinking you’re going to die) is taken away, lifts you higher than you were before it.

The research has been done in people who have no history of self-harm, but it may explain why some people intentionally seek to hurt themselves. Emotional pain and physical pain activate the same areas of the brain. Relief from physical pain (when the self-harm episode ends) brings simultaneous relief from emotional pain. The greater the emotional pain, the greater the relief.  

This does not mean that people who self-harm are wired differently to the rest of us. They aren’t. When emotional pain feels overwhelming and unmanageable, it’s understandable that people who self-harm might tap into their own internal resources to find relief from that pain, even if it means first having to inflict intense physical pain. Intense emotional pain can feel as though it has a life of its own. It can feel out of control. Self-inflicted physical pain, on the other hand, is manageable and controllable.

When physical pain is inflicted deliberately, the beginning and ending of that pain is something that can be managed and used to bring relief to emotional pain. This is not something done to manipulate or control other people. For people who self-harm, physical pain which is under their control is more manageable and more tolerable than emotional pain which feels out of their control. It is a way to bring the self back into balance, which is something we are all driven to seek. When the need for balance is strong enough (brought on by an important unmet need), it will make the unthinkable – the deliberate infliction of pain – feel like an option.

If you are someone who self-harms …

Healing won’t happen by telling yourself that you need to heal. You’ve been doing that. It also doesn’t happen by telling yourself that you need to be brave, strong, resilient. You are already that. It happens when you start to trust. Trust that the people around you have what it takes to fight for you and with you against whatever it is that’s hurting you. 

We all need a hand from time to time, and if this is your turn to ask for help, be kind to yourself and let that happen. Whether it’s a parent, a friend, a partner, a counsellor, a doctor – there are people who want to understand and help you. There is a human connection between all of us, whether you can see it or not, feel it or not, or believe it or not. It’s there. You are not alone. There are people who have such a deep, unwavering, fierce commitment to helping things to better for you. Part of the struggle convinces you that there isn’t, but there is. Don’t let your struggle make you blind to them. Trust that they will cope with your story.

Asking for help is an almighty, incredible strength. You have proven that you are a fighter – brave, strong, beautiful and incredible. You wouldn’t have got through what you’ve been through if you weren’t. Open hearts will bring open hearts. Know that there are people who will always be ready to fight for you. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with self-harm: For Extra Support – When Being Human Gets Tough.

[irp posts=”2373″ name=”To the Ones Who Are Self-Harming, Here’s What You Need to Know …”]

[irp posts=”2376″ name=”When Someone You Love is Self-Harming”]

19 Comments

Kate

I think there is too much stigma surrounding this phenomenon and when people hear about it they automatically assume its a suicidal tendency – when that is not always the case.

I was one such person before I lost a very close friend of mine (suddenly). the emotional pain of grief was more torturous than any physical pain I’d ever endured and I couldn’t bare the thought of ‘cutting’ myself but it came about as a last resort and this article is spot on about the psychological effect – in the worst of the emotional turmoil I would cut and this feeling of absolute relief would wash over me….

Thankfully, it only lasted about a year and then I stopped (because I knew deep down it wasn’t the healthiest way of dealing with my problems), but since then, I would never think of judging another person for doing it – only that I cringe because I’ve been there and know its ultimately unhealthy and we need to learn to be kinder to ourselves!

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Karen Young

Kate thank you so much for sharing your story! I hear you – there is way too much stigma about so many mental health issues. What you are describing makes so much sense. Your voice is strong and important – we need to understand more about this from the people who know – and that is people like you who have been there. I’m so pleased you were able to find your way through – that mustn’t have been easy but you did it. You are strong, brave, and your wisdom is important – thank you.

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Artemis Manias

I found to article very useful, I work with people who self-harm . I do find all articles written by Karen extremely useful in a way that people who are not therapists can understand so I forward them to clients and post them on FB.
Thank you

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SharonH

I wasn’t going to write this reply but then decided that I have nothing to be ashamed of and that it is a coping mechanism while dealing with almost insurmountable problems.

As one who self-harms, this article helped in a tremendous way. I already understood most of its points, but it is very reassuring and an absolute aid in helping me explain to the (very few) people who know what I do.

In my case it’s only done when the internal pressure of the many things that face me in life come to a head. It helps me in the way that letting off excess steam in a boiler that is about to explode helps to avoid a catastrophe. I cannot explain the relief it provides. It takes knowledge to know just how to do it without creating a harmful physical condition. We do become experts at it, unfortunately.

Most of us “cutters” take great care to hide our wounds/scars from others. To me it is a safety valve. My psychologist understands and tries to help me avoid and cope with the problems that bring it about. But these attacks come mostly in the middle of the night, when negative thoughts tend to come upon me.

I pondered over whether to hit that “reply” tab. It is the first time I’ve ever written about it in public. But to see this article addressing a very much misunderstood behavior is gratifying. Thank you so much for providing light on a subject that is so taboo. Most writings revolve around teenagers, but I am here to validate that we older folks are also subject to this type of behavior.

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Teri

Sharon,
As a one who also self-harms, I have to say I agree with everything you said. I too am an older folk and it is difficult now days to find any information, let alone another our age who can relate to the issues that are taboo. Thank you so much for sharing. I wish for you to find that inner peace and happiness that I know I’m striving to find in my life. Thank you Karen for writing this article as well.

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SharonH

Teri, though not happy that you too self-mutilate, it is comforting to know that this practice stretches across so many age groups. I felt so alone and thought I must be some sort of freak. Not true!

This article AND the responses have been therapeutic in themselves. Good to know that the commonly held belief that mostly teens self-mutilate is incorrect.

So nice to be able to be open and honest about this. This article is a real “keeper” and many thanks to Karen-Hey Sigmund for having the courage to put it on the web where others can hopefully read it and understand a very taboo subject.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Sharon I’m so pleased you hit the ‘reply’ button. What you describe makes so much sense. We ALL have our ‘stuff’ and the more we can talk about it, the more we are able to heal ourselves and each other. Your voice is your power. You will have made a difference to people by sharing your experience – it’s powerful, brave and important. Thank you!

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Linda

Thank you very much for sharing. Your reply, insight, and courage has helped many of us to understand and better support others! My very best wishes to you.

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aamlewis16

Wow, this is the best writing I have ever seen on this subject. It compassionately explains why people self-harm and what it accomplishes. Spot on. I had a therapist tell me that my behavior was undoubtedly a very effective solution to the problem at hand, but I really needed a better way to cope. She was right, it was effective, and it helped to have her and this article acknowledge that fact without being horrified. Getting my mood disorder under control makes it now seem almost inconceivable to me that I ever cut. But I still know why I did.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased that you were able to find somebody who understood. It takes courage and strength to look behind the reasons we do some things. Thank you for sharing your story. I know it will give hope to plenty of people who read it.

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Stephanie

I agree. I recently saw someone whom burn themselves. I wasn’t aware of their pain.. I was selfish only thinking of my situation.
I feel my problem is not worth exploring. I hope they are able heel.
They cannot heal if I’m in their families way.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

The idea that people would hurt themselves can be confronting to anyone who doesn’t understand what drives it. I love that you have been so open to taking a different view. Sometimes standing with respect and quiet acceptance of another person’s situation, their needs and their pain, even if we don’t quite understand, can be one of the most powerful ways to support somebody’s healing.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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