Why Do People Harm Themselves?

22 October, 2020
Some people use self-inflicted pain as an escape valve for emotional suffering. Most people are somewhat familiar with the term "cutting". Today, we'll address the root causes of this behavior.

Why do some people harm themselves? By some estimates, four percent of adults self-harm, with no significant difference between men and women. The number is bigger for adolescents (12-18 years), so much so that it’s become a major concern for health officials. Cutting, hitting, burning, or pulling out your hair are some examples of self-harm. The reason that people do it is for an emotional release. Paradoxically, it makes them feel better.

It’s important to note that not everyone who practices cutting, for example, knows why they do it. Some people argue that teens do it to “be cool” but that attitude undermines the seriousness of the problem, which seems to be on the rise. A horizontal scar on a teen’s wrist doesn’t always mean they’ve tried to commit suicide at some point. It could point to an attempt to “feel alive” through pain.

The phenomenon of self-harm, or self-injury, is more complex than it seems. In this article, we’re going to delve into the issue to understand its causes, how it affects those who engage in this behavior, and the treatment and intervention options.

A woman with schizophrenia.

Reasons why people harm themselves

Some people are embarrassed about a few extra pounds or having a hooked nose. Others are ashamed of the marks on their body from where they’ve hurt themselves. They hide their scars under bracelets or tattoos or only inflict pain on body parts other people rarely see.

In a study conducted by the psychology department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2005-2011, one out of every five adolescents self-harm. Unfortunately, these numbers have only increased in recent years.

The psychopathology of this behavior has sparked the interest of researchers, especially with the effect that social media has had on the issue. The advent of social networks has made cutting much more “popular” among teens. While adults who practice cutting tend to carefully hide their behavior, some teens go as far as to publish photos of their self-inflicted injuries.

This is alarming behavior. But the question remains: why do people harm themselves? Why is inflicting pain on yourself a cathartic experience?

The causes of self-injury

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defines this behavior as a “disorder”. In other words, it’s a mental health problem, although most experts agree that it’s often the symptom of something deeper. Gonzalez, R.B., and Alvarez, B.G. (2012) argue that people who harm themselves are usually dealing with an anxiety disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress.

Here are some triggers of self-harming behavior:

  • Intense pressure and an overwhelming workload at school or your job.
  • Being bullied at school.
  • Issues at work.
  • Having been abused as a child.
  • Being homophobic or transphobic.
  • Self-esteem issues.
  • Having suffered a loss and being trapped by grief.
  • Stress built-up over time.
  • Financial problems.
  • Borderline personality disorder is one of the mental conditions that can cause self-harm.
  • Hate for your own body.

As you can imagine, the situations that lead to this behavior are varied. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how much money you have, or what your gender is. For many, seeking out this pain is their only escape valve.

Why people harm themselves

There isn’t much that can grab your attention like someone cutting themselves, burning their skin, pulling out their own hair, or just picking at a scab until it gets infected. But why do people do it? What are they trying to get?

Villarooel, J. and Jeres, S. (2013) explain the four main reasons why this occurs in their book Self-Harming Non-Suicidal Behavior in the Clinical Setting [translation from Spanish].

  • Physical pain can relieve emotional suffering. It doesn’t just distract from the sad past or anxiety of the present. Self-harm is a way to achieve psychological “relief”, like letting a heavy backpack slide off your shoulder. It’s almost like throwing up for a person with bulimia nervosa.
  • On the other hand, some people hurt themselves because they’re trying to punish themselves. They’re their own worst critic, and this type of behavior is their way to make amends for a mistake, low productivity, or failure.
  • It’s important to remember that self-harm is, for some people, a way to “feel something”. If you feel like your life is empty, meaningless, and monotonous, this behavior is a way to escape all of that.
  • Last, but not least, a self-inflicted injury can be a cry for attention. This is especially true for teens ages 12 and 13.
A woman wondering why people harm themselves.

How to help people who harm themselves

In a nutshell, people who engage in self-harming behavior do it because they’re suffering in some way. A psychological approach and rapid intervention are crucial in all cases. That’s because self-harm and suicide are closely linked.

Appropriate treatment for self-harming behavior includes the following:

  • Problem-solving based therapy. Working with the patient to identify what’s triggering their behaviors and coming up with strategies to deal with those underlying issues.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is also helpful for self-harming patients. CBT supports them in managing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Emotional management and self-esteem work are both important.

Ideally, the patient’s family should be involved in therapy, especially if the patient is a minor. The family life of children and teens plays a decisive role in these kinds of issues, so it’s essential to keep that in mind. Self-harming behavior is a dangerous and deceitful escape valve that no one should have to turn to. If you or anyone you know is engaging in this behavior, get professional help.

  • González, R. B., & Álvarez, B. G. (2012). Conductas autolesivas. Cad Atenc Primaria18, 70-72.
  • Ibáñez, Á. F., Costa, M. V., del Real Peña, A., & del Castillo, C. S. (2012). Conducta autolesiva en adolescentes: prevalencia, factores de riesgo y tratamiento. Cuadernos de Medicina psicosomática y psiquiatría de enlace, (103), 5.
  • J. Muehlenkamp, Jennifer, Laurence Claes. International prevalence of adolescent non-suicidal self-injury and deliberate self-harm. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health. 2012 Mar 30;6:10. doi: 10.1186/1753-2000-6-10.
  • Villarroel, J., Jerez, S., Montenegro, M., Angélica, M., Montes, C., Igor, M., & Silva, H. (2013). Conductas autolesivas no suicidas en la práctica clínica: Primera parte: conceptualización y diagnóstico. Revista chilena de neuro-psiquiatría51(1), 38-45.