“Why is she doing this to herself?” “Does this mean he is suicidal?” “What can we do to help her?” These are all common questions parents ask me after first discovering their child has been self-harming. At this point, parents often express a mixture of emotions: fear, anxiety, guilt, and quite commonly: utter confusion.
Many of the people I counsel who are struggling with cutting typically don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing at first, so how could a parent possibly be expected to “get it” at first, either? (And if it makes you feel any better, even mental health professionals who don’t specialize in self-harm often confess they don’t get it, either!). So, if you or someone you love is struggling with self-harm, and you find yourself scratching your head trying to comprehend it all, you’re certainly not alone…and this post is written for you.
Before I list some of the common reasons WHY people self-harm, I want to first explain WHAT self-harm is: a coping mechanism. Most people are not self-harming (e.g. cutting themselves) to attempt suicide (a common fear for many parents), but rather, are doing so as a way to cope or deal with what’s going on in their lives (much like how others abuse drugs, alcohol, food, etc.).
While self-harm is obviously destructive in the long-term, it has short-term “benefits” that drive people to do it in the first place. In other words, it does something for them temporarily (key word: temporarily). In order for a person to change any behavior (like cutting), they must first understand and address the function(s) of their behavior (i.e. what it does for them in the short-term). In order to give you a better understanding of this struggle, the following is a list of 8 common reasons why people may choose to self-harm (though this is by no means an exhaustive list!):
- To “numb out”. Much like drugs, alcohol, or food, people commonly use self-harming as a way to numb their uncomfortable emotions for a brief period of time.
- To distract from deeper issues. Much like #1, people can use self-harming to escape from reality and distract themselves from what’s really troubling them in their lives. For example, if it a teen is being bullied at school, self-harm may serve the purpose of shifting their attention from the deeper issue (feelings of rejection, sadness, etc.) to their physical pain and struggle with self-harm.
- To feel something. While this is the complete opposite of #1, it’s common for those struggling with depression and/or feeling an overall sense of numbness to cut themselves in an effort to feel something. In the midst of feeling emotionally “dead”, the physical pain gives them a temporary sense of feeling “alive.”
- To punish themselves. Another common reason people cut themselves is to punish themselves for something they believe they did wrong and/or feel guilty about. For instance, someone with an eating disorder may break one of their “food rules” (e.g. eating something they labeled as “off limits”) and punish themselves by self-harming in order to vent their frustration with themselves and curb their future behavior (e.g. to follow that “food rule” in the future).
- To relieve stress. When we experience high amounts of pain and/or stress, our brain releases endorphins to help us through it (e.g. a “runner’s high”). Thus, when people self-harm, their brain is flooded with endorphins to help cover the physical pain, which creates a “high” that can become quite addictive. As a result, some people may find themselves doing things like cutting deeper or more frequently to experience the same effect (much like someone addicted to drugs or alcohol).
- To communicate their pain. For people who struggle with directly communicating their needs to others, self-harming can be a way of indirectly communicating how much they’re hurting to others.
- To cry for help. Much like #6, some people struggle to communicate their need for help or do not feel like their struggles are being acknowledged and/or validated by others. Self-harming can serve as a way for them to gain the attention and support they need to address their pain.
- To fit in. Sadly, self-harming has become an epidemic among our youth. For those who don’t feel like they belong, self-harming can sometimes be a way to fit in with other “misfits” or “outcasts” whom they can relate to who also may self-harm.
While self-harm has temporary “benefits” that do something for a person in the short-term, it ultimately costs people MUCH more in the end (but that’s for another post!). In every case, self-harm serves as a signal to a much deeper problem that needs to be addressed and communicates a person’s need for help. While self-harm can be difficult to understand at first, it is very treatable, and I have seen many people break free of the grip it once had on them.