Why People Self-injure

Written by L.N. Cordero, MA
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There are many reasons an individual may turn to self-injurious behavior. Self-injury is, at its essence, a maladaptive coping mechanism for dealing with extreme or overpowering emotions.

Generally, individuals use maladaptive coping mechanisms when healthy coping mechanisms have either not been learned or have not yet become habit. For the self-injurer, harming oneself may provide an outlet for anger, a form of self-punishment for not living up to realistic or unrealistic standards, or a sense of atonement for real or imagined mistakes. Others may engage in self-injurious behavior as a way to experience sensation and regain a sense of vitality when overwhelmed with feelings of emptiness, numbness or boredom. Some individuals may self-injure to express emotional pain, express or repress sexual impulses, or to gain a sense of control over their own bodies.

3 Reasons People Self-Injure

The reasons individuals give for self-injury may vary but generally fall into three broader reasons. These categorical reasons are control or punishment, emotion regulation, and communication. Reasons for self-injury that fall under the control or punishment umbrella may be the result of past abuse. During the abusive situation, the self-injurer may have adopted maladaptive thinking patterns such as, ‘I deserve to be punished because I am bad,’ and may reenact past abuse through self-abuse when experiencing negative emotions about themselves. In addition, the self-injurer may use their behavior as an attempt to influence others to behave according to the self-injurer’s wishes.

Every categorical reason for self-injury has an element of emotion regulation, however, some self-injurers use this behavior primarily for the regulation of their emotions. Physiologically, sensations of pain release endorphins in the brain which enact a natural calming and euphoric effect upon the body. Because these endorphins are released during physical pain, individuals may make use of deliberate self-harm in order to self-soothe. Self-injury may be an attempt to regain emotional equilibrium when unpleasant emotions soar out of control.

Lastly, self-injury may be an attempt to communicate intense emotional pain which the self-injurer has difficulty verbalizing directly. Difficulty expressing emotional pain directly may arise from past experiences of emotional invalidation or rejection by significant people in the self-injurer’s life. While many individuals may interpret self-injurious behavior as manipulative, it is better interpreted as indirect expression of an unmet need. Taking time to explore the reasons behind self-injurious behavior and what the self-injurer needs will be more effective than treating the self-injurious person as manipulative.

Seek Help for Self-Injurious Behavior

Once a person is able to identify the reasons they or someone they know is engaging in self-injurious behavior, they can begin to find or help another find alternative methods to meet the need underlying the behavior. Seeking help from a trained health care worker, counselor or pastor can be a valuable means of intervention. This behavior must never be taken lightly, and should be addressed by seeking help as quickly as possible.


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