Self Harm; Some truths. Why do people self harm?

Self harm is still, very much, a taboo topic; for people who self harm, for people who know someone who self harms, and for people who don’t know anyone who self harms. This is an area close to my heart and I’m not afraid to talk about it. I hope that this helps someone who reads this, in some way. It is also the area that I worked in extensively before moving into being a therapist; it’s something I have a great deal of knowledge and understanding in.

There are a lot of myths around, about people who self harm (note; not ‘self harmers’ because someone is so much more than their self harm). Some of these you might know are

~’Only teenage girls self harm’
~’It’s always for attention’
~’People only self harm by cutting themselves’
~’People just cut themselves on their arms (so people can see)’
~’It’s just a cry for help’
~’The worse the self harm, the worse someone is feeling’
~’If I make them promise not to do it, and they do, it means they don’t care’~’Self harming breaks my trust in you’
~’If I hide the tools, then they won’t do it’
~’If I check their body for marks, it will help them’
~’If I/you stop hurting myself/yourself, and then I/you do it again, that’s failure’

Do you recognise any of those?

I would think that you possibly do.

Can I just draw attention to the fact that all of those myths are completely and entirely wrong. I’m not going to ‘bust the myth’ on this article, but maybe I will in the future. If this is something you would like, please let me know.

What I am going to do today is talk about the reasons why someone might self harm. Self harm is such a vast topic, that I could pick any area of it (reasons why, how to stop, who does it, how does someone do it, what does someone need) and share some valuable information and insights, but it feels like oftentimes, people are heavily judged for doing what they do because someone does not have understanding into why someone would do it.

One of my most favourite books is ‘Healing the hurt within; Understanding self-injury and self-harm and heal the emotional wounds’, by a lady called Jan Sutton, written in 2006. You can find it here, on Amazon, if you are interested.

The reason I love it is because she has done some amazing and incredible research with people who self harm. I could explain why people do it, however, she has researched and divised the ‘8 C’s of Self Injury’, which is a very streamlined and comprehensive way to communicate the reasons someone self harms. I’m going to share these for you, and please note, they come from the above mentioned book (although the words that go with them are mine).

These 8 C’s are;

~Coping and Crisis Intervention– someone might engage with self harm, in a crisis (i.e. when their feelings are overwhelming, and they may be feeling suicidal, or despair, or desperation, or something else equally is intensely), to help manage the crisis and to get through it. This can be life saving for someone. Words that might accompany this might be ‘I can’t bear it anymore’ or ‘I don’t know what else to do’.

~Calming and Comforting– If someone is experiencing distressing feelings, sometimes these can be hard to tolerate. Someone who self harms might self harm to calm down these feelings and possibly for comfort. There could be different reasons why someone might find comfort in the act of self harming (related to the method, someone’s past experience, what they get from it, etc), so it doesn’t feel right to speculate here, but, if someone is self harming for comfort and calming, then it’s something that has been learnt; the person has learnt that if they do X, they feel calm and comfort, and haven’t experienced anything that works any better. Words that might accompany this might be ‘I’m alone and scared’ or ‘I’m really stressed/agitated/panicked and I need that to stop’.

~Control– Someone may feel that they have little or no control over themselves of their life. This is exceptionally common, someone might struggle if they feel they are being controlled  parents or partner or a job or exams or religion or tradition or a health condition or medical treatment or being involuntarily admitted to hospital or so many other things. Having control over your body is something that can feel empowering and, if it feels like you’re disempowered somewhere, or everywhere else, then that is a really precious feeling. This can also be one that someone will struggle with if someone tries to stop them self harming and the person isn’t ready. Words that might accompany this might be ‘this mine’ or ‘no one can stop me’.

~Cleansing– This is kind of like purging your body is ‘poison’ or ‘toxins’ or from ‘contamination’ or ‘dirt’. The body is obviously not really contaminated or filled with poison, however, someone can feel that there is something inside, and want to get it out (and oftentimes, in this case, knowing that some part of the body is leaving, i.e. blood, or, vomit), thus ridding the body of whatever is inside it. Some people will have body feelings or sensations of it, some people will visualise it, some people will have emotions associated with being contaminated, some people might experience flashbacks. Words associated with this might be ‘I need to get it out of me!’ or ‘I won’t be evil/dirty and I’ll be OK’.

~Confirmation of Existence– Some people can struggle to feel alive, or connected to the world, especially when struggling with trauma (or past trauma) and knowing that they actually exist can be helpful, especially if they don’t feel it, for whatever reason. Someone who is struggling with what is real and what isn’t, can also need this confirmation for themself. What gives the confirmation can differ person to person, it might be seeing blood (i.e. what gives us life), it might be feeling pain, or could be seeing an actual wound, or something else. Words that might go with this might be ‘am I alive?’ ot ‘am I part of this world?’ or ‘am I real?’ or ‘I need to feel real’.

~Creating Comfortable Numbness– In some ways this is similar to the calming and comforting, however, this is often about numbing intense feelings or any type. If someone has these intense feeling and can’t tolerate them, then numbness can be some respite or relief from the waves of emotion rolling over them. Words that might go with this are ‘I need it to stop’ or ‘I need a break from this’.

~Chastisement– It’s quite common for someone who has experienced trauma or inadequate parenting or some other kind of challenge to feel that they need to be punished, that they aren’t good enough, that they deserve the pain/marks/to not eat or to self harm and feels really low and down on themselves. There is also likely to be a lot of self hatred or anger towards themself too. Self harming can be a form of punishment and that can be directly related to the act or, it can be a way to sabotage something positive in their life (such as a relationship) because the person feels they don’t deserve it. Words that might go with this are ‘I deserve this’ or ‘I deserve to hurt’ or ‘I don’t deserve to have X in my life’ or ‘this is my fault, I need to pay’.

~Communication– This is the one most often confused with ‘attention seeking’, however, this is not. It can be hard for people to truly communicate the depth or intensity of their pain. This might be due to having no one to hear, or no one wants to hear, or someone doesn’t have words for it (and this is really common for many reasons), or something else. Self harm can be used to communicate to someone else, or it can be used to communicate to the person who self harms. Needing to communicate, needing to connect, is a healthy, basic need, and to only have self harming as a way to communicate can show the loneliness that person may feel. Words that might go with this are ‘things really are this bad’ or ‘I feel this bad’ or ‘I want you to know how bad I feel’ or ‘please hear me’ or ‘please help me’.

As well as listing these eight, it’s important to identify that people may well relate to one of these only or, maybe more commonly, there might be several in play in any one ‘episode’, and the reasons might change each time someone self harms.

If you are someone who does or has selfharmed, have a think about what you relate to, which ones may play a part when you do/did self harm.

If you know someone who self harms, consider what might be going on for them. Maybe share this post, maybe even start to gently talk with them to really hear what they have to say (but only when they are ready).

If you don’t know anyone who self harms, then I hope this information is useful for you and, if you do meet a situation where you need it, that it has equipped you well.

I hope, that through reasons all of those, you are feeling empathy and sadness for the depth of pain that leads someone to self harm. There are a lot healthier ways of getting these needs met (and some of them, when someone is feeling better in themselves, wouldn’t need to be met), but if someone is turning to self harm (of any type), ten that person is struggling hugely. That person does not need to be judged or ridiculed or laughed at or anything else negative. The person needs care, empathy, understanding, to be heard, to be listened to and to have space to explore their experiences.