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Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Self-Harming

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



The person physically deliberately hurts themself in some way or otherwise puts themselves at high risk of harm.

There is a whole spectrum of actions that can appear here, from harmlessly tapping one's head ('I'm so stupid') to drawing one's own blood and acting in reckless, near-suicidal ways. Self-harm is generally considered to be more about the more extreme end of this spectrum, where sustained bodily harm is caused.

This can be a one-shot activity, taken in anger or frustration. It can also be an obsessive activity that can lead to life-threatening damage.


  • Slapping oneself
  • Banging one's head against a table
  • Punching a hard wall
  • Picking at wounds
  • Cutting oneself with a knife or sharp object
  • Burning oneself
  • Biting oneself
  • Picking fights with others (especially tough people)
  • Reckless driving
  • Body piercing or tattoos (painful!)
  • Taking narcotic drugs or medicine overdoses


Self-harm is a remarkably common activity, particularly amongst young people (particularly teenagers), that can have many different causes. Common causes include bullying, death of a loved one, neglect, abuse and debilitating illness. Many of these can lead to low self-esteem, which has a particular causal link with self-harm.

It can be scary for others when they find out the person is self-harming. Parents fear suicide. Others fear the rage being projected outwards.

Self-harm can be an attention-seeking activity but mostly is not. Many hide their injuries and do not seek help.

When you harm yourself, you feel pain. When you are numbed by depression, this can, paradoxically, be life-affirming.

People who self-harm may be punishing themselves, perhaps because they believe they have done wrong or often because others have told them they are bad.

Self-harm can have a strong control aspect. I feel I cannot control the world around me, but at least I can do this. If I cannot attack others at least I can attack myself as a substitute for the intended target.

It can also be a displacement. I want to harm someone else, but I cannot, so I will harm myself instead.

Releasing blood can, strangely, seem like letting out bad feelings.

In psychoanalysis, the death drive may help to explain this oft-baffling activity. Freud discussed this as the opposite of eros, or libido, the life drive.

Self-harm is also known as self-abuse, self-mutilation, self-inflicted violence or self-injury.

So what?

Watch those you know who are unhappy or who have low self-respect. Watch for covering up of skin and excuses for bruises and other signs harm.

In helping others, first find out when the behavior started. This may give a clue to the original cause.

Give them harmless displacement activities that may reduce stress, such as running, dancing or listening to music. Counting down from ten and just focusing on a nearby object can also be helpful when other activities are not available.

Otherwise helping them to increase their confidence is likely to help. Find doable challenges for them and help them succeed. Praise them for things well done. Help them to socialize with caring others.

If you have any doubt or concern, it is often a good idea to get professional advice.

See also

Life and death drives, stress

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