This is the second article in the #talkingisharmless series written to mark Self Harm Awareness Day. We hope it will raise awareness of self harm, debunk myths, and provide information on how to get help for self harm.

Reasons behind self harm

A commonly asked question when it comes to self harm is “why do people do it?” The reality is that the reasons behind self harm are often very complex. Each person who self harms will have their own reasons for doing so, which are individual and unique to them. Self harm can be linked with, but not limited to, issues such as: bullying; abuse; bereavement; family conflict or separation; and periods of transition (e.g. leaving school or university, starting employment).

Many people who self harm struggle with feelings of low self esteem. Others may have an underlying mental health problem which triggers or affects their self harm. However, this is not the case for everyone who self harms. For many people, self harm is a way of managing overwhelming emotions, none of which have anything to do with mental health problems.

Usually, when we boil things right down, we find that one factor common to most people who self harm is ‘invalidation’. Human beings are not born with the knowledge of how to recognise, express and cope with our emotions. We learn these skills throughout our lives, especially during childhood, from our parents, siblings, friends, family members, teachers and others in our lives. Invalidation occurs when a person comes to believe that expressing their emotions is in some way “bad” or “wrong”. They will then learn to keep their emotions bottled up, which can only go on for so long before emotions become overwhelming. People who experience invalidation will not have learned how to cope with their emotions, and so can be left feeling overwhelmed and scared at the intensity of their feelings.

Self harm as a coping strategy

Self harm can act as a coping strategy by bringing emotions back down to a more manageable level. Many people we support describe feeling a sense of relief when they self harm. This occurs because of chemical reactions which take place in their body when they self harm.

Self harm often acts as a way of communication – a person who has experienced invalidation will not know how to verbalise their feelings, and self harm may present a way for them to let others know how bad they are feeling. Self harm is also closely linked with a need to feel in control, and many people describe self harm as as a means for them to exercise control over an area of their lives when they otherwise feel powerless.

Ultimately, the reasons behind self harm are often very complex and each person who self harms will have their own reasons for doing so, which are individual and unique to them.

Share to raise awareness

Please help to spread awareness by sharing this article. You can also use the #talkingisharmless hashtag to share your own thoughts on self harm.

Get help

Find a Penumbra self harm service near you:

Join in the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – #talkingisharmless