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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 2020, December 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/speakingoutaboutselfinjury/2018/02/when-self-harm-is-for-attention



Author: Kayla Chang

You can find Kayla on Google+.

nita
October, 20 2020 at 4:42 pm

I am 16 and I fight with my family 24/7. It's my fault, I know it is, but I get so hurt and stuff that I cut myself. I've downed pills before, two or three times, but each time I failed. My brother writes on the chalkboard that I'm an incompetent waste of oxygen and a bitch-which is true, I am a bitch, but It still hurts. My mom found out I was cutting and said I was doing it for attention and it was mean to do that while people out there with that disease were actually doing it for a reason because they had that disease. And she says that I wear short sleeves all the time anyway not long sleeves like the actual people do, and I'm like whatever, not like you'd care, and I don't at school because why would I? I tried like 2 and my friend was like "What's wrong with your arms" and I was like, "NOTHING!" I don't know what's real, am I doing it for attention? I'm writing this, so then I am doing this for attention? I DON"T KNOW!!! I haven't been depressed recently either so i don't know.

October, 20 2020 at 7:40 pm

Hi Nita,
I'm sorry to hear things have been so difficult. Self-harm, regardless of your reasons for it or the circumstances surrounding it, is always a challenge to cope with, both for the person who is harming themselves and for those who know about it. And I can't imagine it was easy to share your story, either--but I'm glad you're still here to do so. I want to share a few things with you in return.
First, know that self-harm comes in many forms. Many people do self-harm for attention, but whether you do or not does not qualify or disqualify you as a person who self-harms. Likewise, wearing short sleeves does not make hurting yourself more or less severe of a problem. Depression can often be a cause or trigger for self-harm, but not everyone who self-harms is depressed. If you hurt yourself, and especially if you hurt yourself repeatedly, then that is self-harm. This may be difficult for others to understand, especially people who do not hurt themselves, but I think it is important for you to understand.
That leads me to my second point. I am not a trained clinician, nor am I a mind-reader, so I can't pretend to know the reasons behind your mother's and brother's responses to your struggle. However, I do want to put it out there that people cope with difficulty in different ways. It may be challenging for them to accept that you self-harm, and this difficulty may cause them to react in ways that may be confusing and/or hurtful. These reactions, however, don't necessarily mean that they don't care. Often, it means the opposite.
Finally, while this may not be what you want to hear, I do strongly encourage you to find someone neutral to talk to about this issue. Self-harm can be difficult in and of itself, but you also seem to be struggling with negative self-talk as well as strained relationships with your family. Talking to someone like a counselor or therapist will not only give you someone you can vent to without fear of judgment or harsh responses, but also the opportunity to explore your real reasons for self-harming--whatever they may be. A trained clinician can also help you find other, healthier alternatives for coping with these reasons--and with how others may react to your self-harm or your recovery.
If you're not sure how to get in touch with a therapist or someone else who can help, and especially if you're not sure how your family will react to you seeking any kind of counseling, try talking to a counselor at school or work (if one is available to you) or try calling a hotline. There are even some services that allow you to text, email, or instant message if you're not comfortable talking on the phone.
There is absolutely no shame in asking for help. After all, if you have a serious physical illness, you go to a doctor or a hospital, right? Your mental health is just as important.
Here are some resources on our own website you can use as a jumping-off point for understanding more about self-harm and finding help when you're ready:
https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-homepage
If you have more questions, thoughts, or concerns you'd like to share here, feel free to do so. I am always happy to help in any way I can.
Sincerely,
Kim

sophie :/
May, 25 2020 at 4:53 pm

im 14, I have self harmed for 2 years so not that long. sometimes I look at my arms and think the scars aren't bad enough or worthy enough to the pain I feel. I wear bandages so I can take my jumper of because last summer holidays I stayed in jumper and joggers and it was horrible. Ive got no summer clothes so that's why I take the jumper of because I haven't got long sleeve shirts. i use to do it daily but its not as often because there is either no space or I have no reason. I want the teachers to notice though and when I take it off I hate it and become conscious. but I allow the teachers to see the bandages, it makes me feel like im doing it for attention because I told a teacher cause he found a razor in my pencil case and it was someone I trusted but I eventually pushed him away. theres teachers I feel comfortable with and I wish they knew but at the same time I don't. its normally male teachers as my dad was abusive and he disappeared. and when I met his gf she was horrible and had a massive fight with us so I don't trust females.
when I self harm I feel like its for attention because I want others to know about it and I show the bandages and I always want my scars to look worse. please explain why I want that and why I feel like this

May, 27 2020 at 7:52 pm

Hi Sophie,
I'm sorry to hear that you are going through all of this. I'm not the author of this particular post and I cannot say that I know exactly how you feel, but I do understand some of what you are experiencing, and I know that it must be pretty difficult to feel torn between wanting to talk about your self-harm while at the same time being hesitant about opening up. I am not a medical professional, and my experience is not exactly the same as yours, so unfortunately I cannot give you a simple explanation for why you feel the things you do. But I do want you to know that you are not alone in feeling these things--I have felt some of the same things, myself--and that it is not unusual or unnatural to feel them.
I think it is a positive thing to try and share your scars and open up about your self-harm, whether to your teachers or other people you trust or even just here on the blog, because talking is often the first step we take toward healing. I encourage you to follow this instinct and consider talking to a counselor or therapist about your self-harm--someone with the right training to be able to help you find the answers you are looking for. Even just opening up to a trusted teacher, though, is a very good start.
I also want to thank you for sharing your feelings here; I think by doing so, you are helping others who feel similarly realize that they are not alone, just as I hope I have been able to do for you. I hope, too, that you are able to find someone you feel comfortable opening up to more fully about your self-harm, whether it is the teacher you mentioned or a counselor or someone else in your life you can rely on for support during this time. I know it can be a difficult, even scary, thing to talk about, but it can also be a huge relief to have someone on your side who knows what you are going through and is in a position to help you get through it.
Please feel free to check out our self-harm resources page -- there is a lot of great info there that you may find helpful too: https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-homepage

Chloe
March, 4 2020 at 10:05 pm

I am 12 years old and I self harm (scratch and intentionally stall the healing process and watching myself bleed when doing so.) I have told a couple of people I trust and some people found out but when I told them I feel like I did it for attention. I'm really confused what's going on, and I always get mad everyday because I skip a day of harming myself. I'm also scared of my friends ( I guess) telling my counselor and then telling my parents. My dad used to abuse me when I was younger so i'm so permanently scared of him. I wouldn't know how to explain to my parents then. Now I always feel like someone will judge me cause of my scars. During P.E. I'm basically overheating because I wear my black hoodie. I also want to know how to make it less obvious, because I used to not wear a hoodie. I'm scared because I know this person who self harmed and was sent in a police car to a mental hospital. Could I get some opinions of what you think please?

March, 5 2020 at 10:37 am

Hi Chloe,
Thank you for your comment. It takes bravery to admit that you are in the midst of a struggle. I am so sorry that you are confused and in pain. Please see our resources and hotline pages for ways to get help: https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-homepage and https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-refer….
I know it's hard, but please reach out.
Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer
Blog Moderator

felix
February, 8 2020 at 6:24 pm

hi i dont know whats happening with me but ive started to self harm by cutting into my arm with my knife making lines and writing things. i dont really know why i am. i am going through depression and on anti depressants. Im scared that my parents will find out ive self harmed, im paranoid about them seeing my arm. but on the other hand when at school, i feel ashamed and dont want ppl to see so i cover it up, but ocasionally i want my friend to see it, not by shoving my arm in his face, but i want him to find out somehow, and i dont know why. why am i feeling like this. I feel like cutting myself more because i feel like punishing myself but also its a bit of relief and i want scars.
help

February, 8 2020 at 6:44 pm

Hi Felix,
Thank you for your comment. I am so sorry to hear that you are in the midst of this difficult circumstance. Please see our resources and hotlines pages for ways to get help: https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-homepage and https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-refer….
I know it's hard, but please reach out.
Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer
Blog Moderator

Zakiel
December, 15 2019 at 9:33 am

I self harm. I've told someone about it once. I've done it before very publicly (dragged my knuckles on the school walls til they bled). I know how to stop self harming. For some reason I don't stop self harming. I feel like I'm doing it for attention. Can I get your opinions on this please?

lilo
September, 27 2019 at 7:12 am

what am i supposed to tell someone if they are self harming infront of people for attention

September, 28 2019 at 11:39 am

Hi Lilo,
The best thing to do is talk to them about what it is they're struggling with. When we do things for attention, it's because we feel something is lacking in our lives. Ask them what it is they feel they need from people, and how that need can be addressed in other ways.
It also doesn't hurt to express your concern, as long as you aren't lecturing or criticizing. Focus your concern on the thoughts and emotions behind the self-harm and not so much on the self-harm itself.
Hope this helps, and best of luck.
Kayla

Emily
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,
Kayla

Abi
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

Molly
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.

Felicia
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.

Juliet
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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