Self-harm refers to anything that someone does to intentionally hurt themselves—or something that they know is harmful but do anyway. People self-harm for many reasons: to punish themselves for something they’re ashamed of, to gain a sense of control, or just to feel something. Often, the goal of self-harm isn’t the harm itself—the goal is to distract from or release underlying emotional pain.
Self-harm is a maladaptive coping mechanism: something that may make you feel better in the moment, but is harmful overall. Most conversations about self-harm focus on cutting. While skin-cutting is a common form of self-harm, it’s not the only one—and all types of self-harm are important to address.
Physical self-harm is what most people think of when talking about self-harm. It’s sometimes called self-injury or self-mutilation and includes behaviors like cutting, burning, and skin picking. These behaviors often result in physical pain, and some people are looking for that sensation—they may feel numb or want to punish themselves. Others are seeking a “release” or a sense of control.
Physical self-harm is not the same thing as wanting to die. Not everyone who self-harms wants to die—in fact, some people self-harm as a way of distracting themselves from suicidal thoughts. However, people who physically harm themselves are at a higher risk for attempting suicide . And some forms of self-harm can themselves be dangerous or even lethal.
Alcohol & Drug Misuse
If the negative effects of your substance use are severe or outweigh any potential benefits and you keep using anyway, this could be a form of self-harm. Frequent or heavy substance use is often a sign of trying to numb painful or difficult feelings—like self-injury, it can temporarily relieve emotional distress. Alcohol and drug use can quickly become addictive and turn into a mental health concern in itself.
Like addiction, eating disorders are mental health conditions involving behaviors that are harmful to oneself. Any disordered eating patterns can be a form of self-harm, even if you don’t have a diagnosable eating disorder. This can include skipping meals, binge eating, or obsessively tracking your food intake. People turn to these behaviors for various reasons: as a form of self-punishment, to feel a sense of control, or to avoid painful emotions. Disordered eating is often related to a negative body image—you may have internalized negative messages about your body from society or other people in your life.
In reality, any unhealthy or destructive behavior can be emotional self-harm. Patterns like this can be especially hard to identify because you may not even realize you’re doing it. It includes things like procrastinating, pushing away loved ones, or changing yourself to please others. Many of these behaviors are done out of fear, self-punishment, or to gain control over a situation.
Everyone has basic human needs. No one can be perfect, but continuously ignoring your personal needs is harmful. Things like poor diet, an overly messy or unsanitary living space, and poor hygiene are all signs of self-neglect. Self-neglect isn’t usually intentional; it is typically the result of low energy, low motivation, or apathy.
Recovering from self-harm
Self-harm is a habit that can be hard to stop. It can even become an addiction. Even though these behaviors harm you, they are still ways of coping. As you reduce your self-harm behaviors, you’ll need to replace them with other, healthier coping mechanisms. Seek out support from people who care about you, and remember that lasting change takes time.
Self-harm of any kind is often a sign of an underlying mental health condition. People struggling with their mental health often experience very intense negative emotions, and it can be hard to find healthy ways to cope. Any mental health condition can involve self-harm, but some conditions are especially linked with self-harm. These include borderline personality disorder (BPD), eating disorders, depression, and addiction . If you think you may be experiencing one of these, take one of our free and confidential online mental health tests. Then continue reading to learn more about how to improve your mental health.
- Klonsky et al. (2013). The relationship between nonsuicidal self-injury and attempted suicide: converging evidence from four samples. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 122(1), pp. 231-237. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030278
- Kerr et al. (2010). Nonsuicidal Self-Injury: A Review of Current Research for Family Medicine and Primary Care Physicians. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 23(2) pp. 240-259. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3122/jabfm.2010.02.090110