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Therapists explain common causes of self harm

by Sarah Graham
Friday 27 February 2015
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Sunday 1 March is Self Harm/Injury Awareness Day. Self harm includes a range of behaviours; it is most commonly associated with cutting, burning, pinching or otherwise physically attacking yourself (self injury), but can also include drug and alcohol abuse (self poisoning) and eating disorders. Self harm can be a difficult behaviour to understand, and its causes can be complex. Self harm may feel like a quick fix, or even positive, solution to difficult situations and emotions in the short-term, but it doesn't address the underlying issues that are causing you to feel distress. We asked RSCPP therapists to explain some of the common causes of people self harming.


Feeling numb

Self harming is a very personal and individual thing. Everyone has their own reason for self harming, and some individuals may even use different types of self harming to manage different situations. For example, you may harm yourself in some way in situations where you feel numb. This often occurs if you are feeling overwhelmed in some way, or are experiencing high levels of stress. You may feel cut off from your life, your feelings, your thoughts and the world around you. The feeling of being numb may make you feel unreal and is sometimes frightening. Hurting yourself physically can be an effective way to feel something, anything, again and to bring yourself back to the real world, to remind yourself that you are alive once more.


Feeling overwhelmed and disconnected

Therapist: Registered Psychotherapist Aubyn de Lisle
The key to understanding self harming is to understand that it serves a positive purpose. The physical pain helps to alleviate emotional suffering. Sometimes your emotions may be overwhelming and mixed up with all sorts of unaddressed confusion. This might involve shame, grief, disgust or anger. Sometimes there may be an aspect to self harming which involves conscious self-punishing. Your way of dealing with self-disgust and shame may be to 'live in your head'; you may disconnect from your bodily awareness in a way that sometimes makes you feel like you're going 'crazy' and disconnected from reality, especially when something stressful happens. The pain of self harm can be a way of overriding your 'head' and reconnecting with your body which feels reassuring, soothing.
Registered Psychotherapist Aubyn de Lisle


Anger towards yourself or others

Deliberate self harm can be rooted in many complex ideas and beliefs, one of which might be anger directed towards yourself and/or others. If you engage in deliberate self harm, it may be that you have not found an appropriate or effective way of communicating your feelings. It may be that you feel angry that you have specific feelings, angry that they cannot manage these feelings, or angry that a particular person provokes unmanageable feelings in you. This anger might then be expressed through punishing yourself or others by hurting yourself.


Survival techniques developed during childhood

Therapist: Registered Counsellor Jenny Charters
People have an amazing ability to find ways to survive, even in the most difficult circumstances. The fact that you are here, reading this, means that you have survived whatever it is that you have had to live through. However, survival techniques, especially ones developed as children, can become habitual ways of being. Although your life situation has changed, you just can't switch off from the way of being that got you through the difficult times. Young people subjected to abuse or trauma that they find unbearable to experience often survive by developing the ability to dissociate from their feelings. That helps, because whatever is happening to them seems as though it is happening to someone else. If you did this as a young person, you may have found that, now the situation is in the past, you can't just switch your feelings back on, or if you do get feelings back, you can't control them. You may self harm either because you feel deadened and would rather feel something than feel nothing, or you may begin to be aware of your feelings, which you can't bear, but don't have the means to soothe yourself. In that case, self harm can be a way of coping when the feelings are too bad to bear.
Registered Counsellor Jenny Charters


Feeling powerless or hopeless

Often people who self harm may find themselves in a high state of emotional distress and turmoil, struggling in an unbearable situation in which you may feel powerless, hopeless, isolated or not listened to. For some people, it can be an impulsive act; for others it could be planned. Methods vary from cutting, burning, starving, unsafe sex, binge drinking, and so on. It can sometimes feel like a 'quick fix' to regain control and reduce distress or tension. If there is an underlying feeling of guilt, it can feel like a way of punishing yourself. Speaking to a therapist can help you explore and address the underlying feelings that fuel the self harming, and together you can problem solve and develop healthier ways to cope with and manage difficulties.


If you are concerned about a friend of relative who is self harming, you may find our article on how to support someone who self harms useful.

Finding support

You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Self Harm, including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

Find a Therapist working with Self Harm

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Updated 27 February 2015