When Self-Harm Is for Attention

February 28, 2018 Kayla Chang

Kayla Chang, author of the blog "Speaking Out About Self-Injury," talks about the stereotype of self-harm as attention-seeking behavior, and the partial truth that exists within this stereotype.

You see this stigma of self-harm for attention played out in TV shows, movies, and often even in real life: A person engages in self-harm. This behavior is noticed by another person, either because the self-harmer has confessed or wears visible scars. People debate among themselves about whether this self-harming behavior warrants confronting the person and/or seeking professional help for the person. Then, as if on cue, someone suggests they forget about the whole thing, and says something along the lines of, "She's just self-harming for the attention."

The Stigma of Self-Harm for Attention

Within the context of self-harm, the word "attention" in the phrase "doing it for the attention" has a very specific connotation. "Attention" here implies theatrics. It implies a measure of deception. It implies something mewing and pathetic. To put it simply, there is always an unspoken qualifier attached in front of the word "attention" in these sorts of statements: "undeserved" (as in "undeserved attention").

It could be that this notion of self-harm behavior as an obnoxious form of attention-seeking comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what self-harm actually is and the psychological function it serves. It could from the stereotype of the self-harmer as a troubled teenage girl dealing with the angst of her prepubescent years in typical melodramatic fashion. Maybe it comes from the frequent conflation of self-harm with suicidality, through the lens of which a person could conclude that self-harm is a deliberately unsuccessful quasi-suicide attempt orchestrated for no other reason than to pull people into its spectacle of near-tragedy. Whichever way you look at it, this stereotype is shaped by preconceived notions founded either on an overly reductive understanding of self-harm or on flat-out falsehoods.

Reframing the Stereotype of the Self-Harmer as Attention-Seeking

If this stereotype is, as I just stated, founded almost exclusively on partial or whole falsehoods, it stands to reason that the stereotype is, indeed, false. However, this is not necessarily the case. What I am proposing here is not that the stereotype is perfectly untrue, but that there is another way — a different way — of understanding the stereotype so that it more accurately reflects the truth.

In my understanding, self-harm functions primarily as a maladaptive coping mechanism. People use a wide variety of coping mechanisms — e.g., exercising, watching TV, meditation and so on — to deal with life's stressors. These coping mechanisms often go unnoticed, and for good reason: they are not maladaptive. It is when a person begins using maladaptive coping mechanisms that those around them begin to notice — e.g., excessive drinking or drug use, overspending, gambling addiction and so on. In these cases, it is appropriate to pay attention to the person, because the person's behavior is suggesting that something is wrong. It is the same case with self-harm.

When someone self-harms, it is sometimes (secondarily) for attention. What the self-harm is saying is, "Something is wrong, and I need help, but I don't know how to ask for it."

This attention-seeking self-harm should be understood for what it is: not as a childish expression of inflated ego, but as a beacon signal for sympathy, safety, and support.

APA Reference
Chang, K. (2018, February 28). When Self-Harm Is for Attention, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 14 from

Author: Kayla Chang

You can find Kayla on Google+.

July, 15 2019 at 1:58 am
I have been struggling with nssi addiction for about ten years, and let me tell you, this article felt like a virtual hug. Thank you for writing this.
July, 15 2019 at 7:24 pm
Hi Emily,

I'm so glad you found this article helpful in some way. I hope this blog can become a source of comfort and hope to you.

All the best,
February, 27 2019 at 4:08 pm
I’m currently struggling with self harm (I’m currently 14) and I feel like I’m attention seeking and it’s extremely confusing me and making me feel worse
March, 20 2019 at 3:54 pm
Hi abi, I am no professional but from my experience telling someone is the best medicine. It doesn’t have to be a parent, it could be a friend, club leader, teacher or school counsellor but telling someone will certainly be a great first step. Personally I found that for me ( I was a similar age to you when I struggled and am now 18) telling a close teacher was great. You don’t have to tell them face to face; many people find that writing it down and handing to them is helpful. It also allows you to make sure you share EVERYTHING that’s on your mind as you sometimes may get caught up in emotions and miss out important things. If you tell a close teacher or club leader, they usually inform your parents however this can be helpful as it takes that pressure of that conversation off of you. Once you tel someone it releases so much desire to do better and a lot of strength that you won’t know you had. I promise that sharing it will help, you’ll probably be surprised how many cases a teacher or counsellor at school has helped- it’s so common and you aren’t the only one going through this.

Please keep talking and try maybe writing down or drawing the exact feelings when you want to self harm as it may help you to identify small triggers and a pattern in behaviour. Self harming for attention isn’t something to be ashamed of it’s just a way of asking for help with a deeper issue and if you can share that, then the deeper issue can start to heal and so will the pattern of hurting yourself.

All the best.
February, 26 2019 at 7:45 am
I self harmed in the past ( teenage years) and there was a point that I didn't want to live becuase of the on going pain I was enduring but I am faced with an issue in my home with my step son. He has never displayed any actions of self hard nor has anyone seen any scares. He is now stating that he is acting out because he wants to self harm for attention. I worry about 2 things; 1. Is he going to self harm? 2. Is he saying this with no intention of self harm, literally only to seek attention and to blame his action on that. I don't want to sound heartless because beleive me that is not the case. I am just a worried parent dealing with a lot.
February, 26 2019 at 10:23 am
Hi Felicia,

I'm sorry to hear of your past with self-harm, and of the current struggle you and your stepson are having. In my (non-professional) opinion, when someone is threatening self-harm, it is always best to assume they are serious and have every intention of following through with their threat -- similar to someone who is threatening suicide.

But the problem goes beyond the immediate threat of self-harm. If he is saying he needs attention, what he might really be saying is that he needs help. Though it may be tempting to fixate on the self-harm, it's important that you both try to figure out what he is going through mentally and emotionally and address it. As I'm sure you know, self-harm is never born of a vacuum. It always comes from somewhere else.

Hope this helps, and I wish you both well.
February, 3 2019 at 2:43 pm
Is self harm among young girls sometimes not just a trend. A way of getting attention. But still not 'normal behaviour. My daughter refuses to go to counselling. How do I deal with this?

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