3 Ways to Know You’re Committing Psychological Self-Harm

April 5, 2021 Martyna Halas

When we speak of self-injury, most people associate the term with inflicting physical wounds on oneself. However, self-harm goes beyond the surface of our skins, and it's more common than we might realize. Whenever we engage in negative self-talk or unconsciously set ourselves up for failure, these are signs of psychological self-harm. Here's how to recognize it.

What Psychological Self-Harm Is and Why It Matters

Psychological self-harm, or emotional self-harm, is the act of engaging in repetitive mental self-abuse. Much like physical self-injury, it's an unhealthy coping mechanism that can lead to severe mental health issues if left unchecked.

Emotional self-harm typically looks like negative self-talk but can also include falling into various unhealthy situations. Some people might subconsciously look for abusive relationships, develop harmful habits, or even put themselves in danger.

Of course, we all fall into critical self-talk once in a while, which may not always be harmful. However, when your negative thoughts become repetitive or obsessive to the point that they interfere with your ability to make decisions or move forward in life, it becomes a problem.

Why Do People Engage in Psychological Self-Harm?

Much like physical self-injury, emotional self-harm is a complex phenomenon, and it's hard to pinpoint one root cause. However, repetitive harmful behaviors can often be traced back to one's childhood. 

People who grew up in unstable households might develop what psychologists call a "maladaptive schema,"1 or self-sabotaging patterns. They cloud our perception of reality to the point that we believe them to be true. For instance, maladaptive schemas might be "I'm not worthy of love," "Everyone hates me," or "I will never achieve anything."

Recognizing Psychological Self-Harm: 3 Most Common Types

Learning to cope with psychological self-harm can take some practice and possibly therapy. First, it's crucial to observe your thoughts and emotions and look out for negative patterns. The following are some of the most common ones that I observed for myself, but I feel they're universal for many people.

A quick tip: Personify your negative thought patterns (like I do below) and talk back to them to shut them off. Note that the pronouns are just an example.

  1. The inner critic -- We probably all know this guy. He criticizes everything you do. He usually tells you that you're not good enough or that you're useless and stupid. He might even make you paranoid about what others think of you or make you feel like an imposter in professional situations.
  2. The body shamer -- I bet many people have a recurrent visitor called the body shamer. This guy makes us feel like a distorted version of ourselves. He always tells us that we're too ugly, too fat, too thin, or simply inadequate to today's beauty standards. Oh, and he comes with a magnifying glass, too, pointing out all the tiny imperfections we didn't know we had.
  3. The negative Nancy -- Finally, we have the negative Nancy, who always anticipates the worst. She sees the future in dark colors and makes it difficult to look forward to anything. Some of her typical phrases are: "It's not going to work," "You're going to fail," or the classic, "But what if . . .?"

What other forms of psychological self-harm do you know? How do you deal with it? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


  1. Pilkington, P., et al., "Early Maladaptive Schemas, Suicidal Ideation, and Self-Harm: A Meta-Analytic Review." Journal of Affective Disorders Reports, January 2021.

APA Reference
Halas, M. (2021, April 5). 3 Ways to Know You’re Committing Psychological Self-Harm, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 20 from

Author: Martyna Halas

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Lizanne Corbit
April, 6 2021 at 7:12 pm

It can be so important for people to even recognize that those behaviors, like the three you mentioned above, are in fact psychological self-harm. How often do we have one of those moments, of the body-shaming, or the inner critic, or the negative Nancy, and just write it off? Sometimes we need to first realize just how serious these behaviors are so we can start to approach them with equal seriousness and desire to change. Wonderful read.

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