Series: What is self harm?

Self harm can be a confusing topic and I am here to explain some of the details about what self harm is and what it isn’t. Self harm is defined as an intentional action that induces pain and/or breaks the skin. There can be two types of self harm - direct and indirect. Indirect can be risky behaviors, substance abuse or generally long term repeated behaviors that cause harm. Direct self harm is cutting, scratching, burning, hitting self, etc.

I think it is important to note that self harm is not about wanting to die - it is often a way to manage the pain and sadness one is feeling. There is often a root or catalyst to why the self harm is occurring and that is why therapy can be helpful. Therapy can get to that root and help the client to learn why the self harm is happening and find other ways to cope with the distress.

Self harm can create shame within an individual which is why it is often done in places that can be covered with clothing. When asking your friend, child, or partner about their self harm, it is extremely important to be mindful of not shaming them about their actions. Allowing them a safe space to discuss what is going on is much more helpful. Ask them about what is going on in their lives that is causing this desire to cut can be the key to understanding their behavior.

Harming the body serves a purpose; it often relieves the feeling of experiencing too much emotion, it can ground oneself into their body, it can be a distraction from emotional pain, and sometimes it helps to get needs met that may be neglected.

Why should they one stop self harming? There are many reasons, but here are a few from Bess Child, LICSW who specializes in self harm: 1) Eventually self harm stops working as well and one may have to continually increase the intensity and frequency of it 2) repeated self harm can increase suicidality in the future 3) Do you want your partner to know about this? Can you have a life worth living with this in the shadows? 4) If you become intimate with a partner how will that be for you with scars or abrasions on your body?

While self harm serves a purpose, at the end of the day it is a scary and unsafe coping mechanism. Helping others begin to talk about can absolutely release the stigma and shame around it which may eventually encourage others to find healthier and safer long term healing and coping mechanisms.