Why do people harm themselves?

There are no fixed rules about why people self-harm. For some people, self-harm is linked to specific experiences, and is a way of dealing with something that is either happening now or that happened in the past. For others, the reasons are less clear. If you do not understand the reasons for your self-harm, it is important to remind yourself that this is okay, and you do not need to know the reasons for your self-harm in order to ask for help.

Any difficult experience can cause someone to self-harm. Common causes include:

  • Pressures at school or work
  • Bullying
  • Money worries
  • Sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • Bereavement
  • Confusion about your sexuality
  • Breakdown of relationships
  • An illness or health problem
  • Low self-esteem
  • An increase in stress
  • Difficult feelings, such as depression, anxiety, anger or numbness, which may or may not be experienced as part of a mental health problem

Some people have also described self-harm as a way to:

  • Express something that is hard to put into words
  • Turn invisible thoughts or feelings into something visible
  • Change emotional pain into physical pain
  • Reduce overwhelming emotional feelings or thoughts
  • Have a sense of being in control
  • Escape traumatic memories
  • Have something in life that they can rely on
  • Punish themselves for their feelings and experiences
  • Stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated
  • Create a reason to physically care for yourself
  • Express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking their own life
  • Communicate to other people that they are experiencing severe distress

“I used to cut myself just so I could feel pain. [It] let me know I was real and I wasn’t in a dream.”

“I ‘needed’ to harm to punish myself for being what I believed then to be a terrible person and to clear the fog in my head. As soon as I did, I’d feel in control, calm and as though a reset button had been pressed in my head.”

Sometimes people talk about self-harm as attention-seeking. If people make comments like this, it can leave you feeling judged and alienated. In reality, most people keep their self-harm private, and it can feel very painful to have your behaviour misunderstood in this way.

If you do self-harm as a way of bringing attention to yourself, remember that you deserve a respectful response from those around you, including from medical professionals.

“I found that cleaning and dressing wounds or taking myself to A&E for sutures was the only time I was kind to myself.”

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