Why Do People Self Injure?


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Self-Injury to someone looking from the outside not only appears like an irrational action, and an almost incomprehensible thought; but is also a subject which has much taboo around it and thus information targeted at layman is few and far between. I intend to therefore detail the reasons why people partake in self injurious behaviour, and some of the similarities between those who self injure.

Self-Injure, not an isolated issue

Contrary to popular belief, self injury isn’t a problem affecting only teenage girls. This is one of the main misconceptions which lead to further invalidation of those who self injure. Statistics of self injury are unreliable because many incidents go unrecorded, and many suffer without seeking available help. Approximately 100,000 people per year are admitted to hospitals in England or Wales following deliberate self-harm; most of which is drug overdoses or self-injury, and of that number 19,000 of which are young people. Self injury is twice as prevalent in women, as it is in men. Whilst these figures are not of direct relation to the topic of why people engage in the act of self injury, it allows a perspective to be taken when reading.

Self Injure, why?

The reasons why people engage in the act of self injury can be grouped loosely into three categories:

As a release of existing feelings and to returning the body back to a state of equilibrium and normality. It is used to validate feelings, and as a way of easing inner turmoil, in the attempt to aid survival and avoid permanent fatality.

Another reason for self injury is to act as a way to communicate with people. This is by expressing feelings which otherwise the injurer keeps locked up inside.

The final category of reasoning behind self injury; is to act as a way to find control, or punishment to the individual.

Details of particular reasons

As previously mentioned, the reasons for self injury can be somewhat loosely grouped into categories. These categories however have grey areas, and are much more complex than the above definitions lead you to believe; after all, the subject of self injury is a person and they are complex creatures.

The reasons which pertain to the release of emotions, includes the likes of trying to obtain a sense of grounding and reality following a dissociative (where, in layman terms you loose touch with reality and have no grounding on the here and now) episode, validation of inner emotions and pain; and in relation to the last one, in a way to prevent suicide by easing current pain. Self Injury is often the healthiest option to someone who only knows a limited amount of coping mechanisms and is therefore using the most life-preserving choice they know. As an expansion upon the reason behind self injuring following a feeling of lack of grounding; this would sit congruently with the condition of Alexithymia which is where a person is unaware of their feelings. This would be in agreement with what self injurers say, when they state how they are unable to say what they’re feeling before or during the act, and thus use an outward expression in order to both remove this numbness, and try and make others feel the inner turmoil which they suffer.

Reasons which relate to self injuring as an act of communication, is in a way that someone self injures because they’re trying to get a need met. This is why the act is often seen as manipulative or ‘attention seeking’ when actually this isn’t the reason nor the motive of the injurer. Often though, although with the following reason it could be seen as attention seeking, it shouldn’t be thought of in the negative stance that it sometimes would be, where someone is selfishly trying to get needs met via the detriment of the well being of those around them; self injury can be done as a genuine last ditch cry for help, where asking directly and detailing problems is too hard, or not possible.

The third category of reasoning’s, the ones based around control over you and real or imagined events around you, has these particular reasons. As a way of re-enacting past experiences, such as that of intense trauma, or delusional thinking where you think “If I do this, then that bad feeling will go away”. The delusion can also be pushed to a situation, where the injurer feels they must commit the act in order to stop the ‘bad feeling’ from hurting other people.

There’s a grey area between all three of the categories, because most of the reasons are similar to that of those in the category of “Emotion Release”, where the act is used as a way of regaining a state of equilibrium within both the body and mind.

Looking at all three collective categories, you can see a potential reason why the number of sufferers is distributed among genders the way it us. In accordance with social conditioning, women aren’t expected to outwardly express anger and rage, which is a common feeling among self injurers. This is contrary to the social conditioning men receive, where outward expression of anger is more commonplace. Also for men, repressing emotions is a normal action, because an expression of emotion is often seen as a failure and doesn’t appear macho among society.

A common feeling among self injurers is that of invalidation, and in an effort to cure this feeling people often try and stick as closely to what they have been conditioned as possible; which is the reason why women don’t express anger and rage healthily and men repress all emotion.

The best cure, is understanding

It has never been doubted, that those closest to the self-injurer have their best interests at heart; and what they seek is a quick fix solution. A magic pill or a wonder drug. Unfortunately neither have been found, and although there is a connection between brain chemicals of self-injurers (serotonin levels); there are also feelings which trigger the injury. Emotions aren’t going anywhere, so neither are the triggers, this is a long term problem, which needs long term solutions. The self-injurer is fully aware that they need to learn of healthier ways to cope, but this process can be much easier with not only the support but also the understanding of those around them. Make sure they know that there is support for them, and try to see, without judging, if they’re trying to communicate through their injury. Sometimes self-injuring isn’t a choice, it’s something which is done for survival, because words cannot be found to express what changes need to be made. Carers need to try searching, looking through the frosted glass, for what the self-injurer needs. Validation, understanding, support; they aren’t everything, but you could go far worse than start with them.


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