What is Self-Injury, Self-Harm, Self-Abuse?

Self-injury, self-harm is when someone deliberately hurts or injures themselves. Self-injury is a coping mechanism and not an attempt at suicide.

It's a perplexing phenomenon with many names: self-injury, self-harm, self-mutilation, self-inflicted violence, self-cutting, and self-abuse to name some. Those who come across it - family members, friends, supporters - even many professionals - struggle to understand why people do it, and find the behavior disturbing and puzzling. Recent reports imply that it is reaching 'epidemic proportions,' particularly among young people. Furthermore, research suggests that it is a frequent companion to eating disorders, alcohol abuse and drug abuse, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative disorders. Those caught in its clutches claim that it is difficult to stop due to its highly addictive nature, or say they are reluctant to try because it helps them 'feel better,' 'more in control,' 'more real,' or simply 'it keeps them alive.'

- Jan Sutton, author "Healing the Hurt Within: Understand Self-Injury and Self-Harm, and Heal the Emotional Wounds"

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is a way of dealing with very strong emotions. For some people, it gives the relief that crying may provide for the rest of us ("Warning Signs of Self-Harm").

Some self-harming people feel so angry and aggressive they can't control their emotions. They become afraid that they may hurt someone, so they turn their aggression inwards to get relief ("Why People Self-Injure").

People who self-harm are often labeled as 'attention seeking'. However, a person who self-harms may believe this is the only way to communicate their distress, and self-harm can be a hidden problem that goes on for years.

It may start as a spur-of-the-moment outlet for anger and frustration (such as punching a wall) and then develop into a major way of coping with stress that, because it remains hidden, generates more stress. ("Cutting: Self-Mutilating to Release Emotional Stress")

The severity of self-harm doesn't depend on the severity of a person's underlying problems. Usually, as time passes, the person who is self-harming becomes more accustomed to the pain they inflict on themselves and so they harm themselves more severely to get the same level of relief.

This spiral can lead to permanent injury and serious infections.

Self-Harm Is Different Than Attempting Suicide

It's important to make a distinction between self-harm and attempting suicide, though people who self-mutilate often go on to attempt suicide.

In the case of attempted suicide (most usually by swallowing pills), the harm caused is uncertain and basically invisible. By contrast, in self-harm by cutting, the degree of harm is clear, predictable and often highly visible.

Many people indulge in behavior that's harmful to themselves, such as smoking or drinking to excess. But people don't smoke to damage themselves - harm is an unfortunate side-effect. The reason they smoke is for pleasure. Yet people who cut themselves intend to hurt themselves.

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 4). What is Self-Injury, Self-Harm, Self-Abuse?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, January 28 from

Last Updated: June 20, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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