Self-harm refers to a behaviour in which a person deliberately harms or hurts themselves. Contrary to common beliefs, self-harm does not generally constitute a suicide attempt. Self-harming behaviours include, among others, cutting, scratching, burning, ripping or pulling skin or hair, self-bruising or self-poisoning.
There is no single reason why people resort to self-harm, but self-harm does indicate that a person is in serious emotional distress. Generally, there are three main categories of reasons why people harm themselves:
To manage moods or feelings: Some people may see self-harm as a release of pent-up emotion, a strategy to contain distress or anger, or as a way of reducing tension. Others see self-harm as a way of coping with a state of emotional numbness, as a way to “feel something” or “feel alive”.
As a response to beliefs or habitual thoughts: This includes punishing oneself for being “bad”, hurting oneself to pre-empt inevitable hurt from others, and channelling aggression that a person fears may result in harm to others.
To manage interactions with others: This is often labelled as “just attention-seeking”, however, is actually a way for the person to communicate needs and feelings to others, when other ways of doing so have been unsuccessful.
Overall, self-harm provides a way for these individuals to survive, until survival by other means is possible. This is often hard for others to understand and tolerate. However, forcing the individual to quit their self-harming behaviour can actually cause them to be more distressed and lead to the situation being more out of control. Giving-up self-harm can therefore be a long and difficult process. Counselling for self-harm addresses the factors that lead to self-harming behaviour and new coping mechanisms are identified to replace the unhealthy behaviours.