Is Emotional Self-Harm a Thing? Signs of Mental Self-Injury
When we hear the word "self-harm," we often think of self-inflicted physical wounds. However, negative thought patterns can lead to emotional self-harm and cause just as much damage to our mental health and lead to serious problems in the long-run. Physical and emotional self-harm can be similar in many ways, and they often go hand-in-hand with each other.
What Is Emotional Self-Harm?
Much like physical self-mutilation, emotional self-harm is an unhealthy form of coping. Mental self-abuse occurs when we sabotage ourselves with destructive thoughts and behaviors that are detrimental to our emotional wellbeing. Do you ever think that you're not good enough or not worthy of love? Do you look in the mirror and hate what you see? Do you please others at your own expense, or run into yet another abusive relationship?
I, for instance, struggle with the so-called imposter syndrome, which means I feel like a fraud in professional situations, with perpetual feelings of self-doubt following me like a shadow. Emotional self-harm, which can lead to depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, or physical self-injury.
Forms of Emotional Self-Harm
Our minds can be our worst enemies, and our emotional self-injury can be as unique as we are. I feel the most common signs of emotional self-harm fall into the following categories:
- Self-criticism: We are possessed by an inner critic who always diminishes our achievements and shames us at every turn. We torture ourselves with our insecurities, effectively inhibiting our full potential.
- Poor self-image: Much like our inner critic, our inner body-shamer distorts our perception of self, but in a superficial way. It fuels us with negative feelings of hatred towards our bodies, which leads to low self-esteem, or worse, eating disorders.
- Worst-case scenarios: Our minds can distort the outside world as well. We feed our anxiety with constant fears and worries about the future, judgment by others, or failure.
- Behavior patterns: Emotional self-harm can also be about certain repetitive behaviors that harm us in the long term. For instance, it could be our lack of boundaries that allows others to take advantage of us, choosing narcissists for partners, or falling into bad habits like binge drinking.
How to Stop Emotional Self-Harm
The good news is that you can break free from emotional self-injury. But first, you must recognize these thought patterns for what they are, and admit that you are doing it to yourself. Once you become aware of your emotions and their root cause, you will be able to develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Psychotherapy and mindfulness can both help you overcome emotional self-harm. I also found the following daily reminders beneficial to my recovery:
- Give yourself credit for something you've done recently.
- Be proud of how far you've come.
- It's okay if things don't go as planned. You did not fail.
- It's okay to say no sometimes.
- Say to yourself, "You are beautiful, you are loved, and you are good enough."
Do you suffer from emotional self-harm? Let us know in the comments.
Halas, M. (2020, June 1). Is Emotional Self-Harm a Thing? Signs of Mental Self-Injury, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, December 9 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/speakingoutaboutselfinjury/2020/6/is-emotional-self-harm-a-thing-signs-of-mental-self-injury
Author: Martyna Halas
For a long time, I've been intentionally destroying things that are dear to me just to hurt myself, like my phone and other things... I've been doing it since I was a child but it only got worse as I grew up. I often have urges to break things in order to hurt myself and highly regret it afterwards. How can I cope with this and stop these destructive behaviors? Please I would like answers..
I feel like if I hurt myself enough, I'll 'be normal'. I was always a sheltered kid and still am. When people talk about how annoying sheltered kids are I feel like I have to hurt myself and put myself through trauma to be likeable. I have this weird theory that maybe if I had gotten beat and abused as a child I would have been less of a sensitive little baby about things. I would be more independent and extroverted. My self sufficiency could have been through the roof and maybe I wouldn't be displaying neurodivergent behaviors (ex: sensory issues) too. I want people to hurt me so I can be normal for once in my life. Maybe if I talked to guys more and got used and cheated on I could be better. I should be drinking and smoking and having sex and partying until I black out. Even if I don't really want to, I could at least fit in better. All I really need is to get hurt. I don't know how to recover and I don't even think I want to anymore. I'm not making it to 17.
I am about to turn 69-years-old. I have been emotionally harming myself and self-sabotaging for over 40 years. I have an advanced university degree and a semi-retired professional and I truly cannot stand myself; my appearance yes but in every other way, as well. It is most painful in the way it has destroyed (or I have destroyed) most of the relationships that meant the most to me: my ex-wife and my children. I live alone and have no friends. I never intend to do anyone harm, but I have done great harm. The ultimate fruits of my emotional self-harm are loneliness, depression, anxiety and constant fear. My only consolation is that, at my age, this can't go on very much longer.
I’m so sorry you’ve gone through this suffering in life, Mike. I hope that you find some peace and moments of joy while you’re still here. Very much love to you.
Sometimes I wander off and find myself wanting to emotionally sabotage myself just to feel something. An example would be looking at something that I know will do emotional damage to myself and make me feel worthless. All just to feel real emotions. I try to stop myself most of the time and it works but sometimes I can’t help it.
I was severally sexually, mentally and verbal abused as a child and I've been carrying around mental self harm I've always found it extremely hard to say no I've had physical abuse in a couple relationships and suffer from very low self esteem even now as an adult in my 40's
I'm so sorry about what you've been through. Saying no can definitely be difficult, but please know that none of the abuse that happened to you is your fault, nor does the difficulty you experience saying no excuse, in any way, whatever has been done to you.
Mental self-harm is every bit as real, and can be every bit as damaging, as physical self-harm. It's never too late to get help and reach out for support. I hope you have, or find, a good medical professional to help guide your healing process as well as trusted friends or family who can be there for you when you need them.
Here are some resources you might find helpful, if you haven't already perused them:
And here's our blog specifically about abuse, should you want to read more of our content on that particular subject:
I hope that helps in any way. I wish you the best of luck and hope that you are able to establish a new, healthier, equilibrium in your life soon. Take care.
Hey, I am struggling with emotional self harm. It is also affecting how I relate to other people.
Thank you for your comment. I'm sorry to hear that. Let me know if you have any questions or concerns you'd like to discuss around this issue. (If you just wanted to share what you're going through, that's fine too. In any case, I hope things get better for you.)
theres is no freedom itll never go away death is eminent and nobody cares anyway
I apologize for not replying sooner, but in case it's not too late, I wanted you to know: the dark things your mind believes in when you're feeling low aren't necessarily true. Recovery IS possible; it's true for others, and it's true for you. It takes time, and patience, and effort, but it's possible. I have no way of knowing if your death is imminent, but I certainly hope it is not.
And as for your last statement—it's definitely not true. It's likely there is at least one person in your life, probably more, who do care, even if they're bad at showing it. Even if you're unaware of it. But even if that is somehow not the case—and I'd be really surprised if it was—it's still not true. Because I care. And I hope you find the support you need.
Here are a few pages that might help:
And if you have any specific questions, concerns, etc. you'd like to share, I'll be reading. I can't always reply right away, but I will as soon as I can.
It takes time, and patience, and effort, but it's possible. What if I'm exhausted. Time, patience, and effort to fix myself doesn't seem possible and too overwhelming.
I understand. I've struggled with overwhelm a lot in the past (and to be honest, I still do from time to time). When you're exhausted, it's important to start small. Take things one step, and one day, at a time. Identify one easy thing you can do that might help, and start there. This can be as simple as starting a bullet journal and writing a couple of lines a day about how you feel, or trying to identify one thing every night before you go to bed that you are grateful for.
These things might seem too small to make a difference, but the more you do them, the more they can help. And once you get into the habit of doing one thing, you can try another — say, learning a simple breathing exercise (like box breathing, one I personally use often to combat moments of intense overwhelm) and trying it out the next time you feel the urge to self-harm. Even putting off hurting yourself for a few hours or even a few minutes is progress at first.
It's also important to lean on others if and when you can, ESPECIALLY if you feel totally overwhelmed. If you don't have anyone like that yet, that's a good place to start. Commenting here is an excellent first step. The next step I would urge you to take is to try and think of just one person you can reach out to personally — ideally, a medical professional, but if that's not an option for you at this time, even a trusted friend or family member will work. You could also look into joining a support group (either a local one or a virtual one, if you like).
Anytime a step feels like too much, try to break it down into smaller steps. For instance:
Step 1: just think of one person (or resource, like a free hotline) you'd be willing to reach out to
Step 2: set a specific time/date to reach out to them
Step 3: contact
Even if you're not ready to share EVERYTHING you're going through right now, sharing even some of the burden can make it much easier to carry — and opens the door to sharing more, and healing more, in the future.
And if you have more questions/concerns or need more ideas, I'm here. Feel free to respond here or comment elsewhere on the blog and I'll respond as soon as I can. Just remember — you don't have to go through this alone.
This is amazing, thank you
I relate really well with this. I am currently struggling majorly with emotional self harm. I used to physically self harm, so in my irrational and dysfunctional mind, I feel like emotional self harm is better. It’s at least easier to hide and more socially acceptable. In addition to the emotional self harm, I haven’t reach the point where I feel like I deserve to be happy. Dysfunction is what I’m used to and I’m terrified to live a life of normalcy and happiness. I am convinced something is going to happen to ruin it and by then I’ve let my guard down.
I completely understand feeling like emotional self-harm is somehow better than physical self-harm--it certainly is easier to keep from others, as you mentioned; in fact, many of us hide it in plain sight in the form of self-derogatory "jokes" others may not recognize as actual reflections of our feelings. It's something I'm guilty of to this day—I still sometimes make jokes about how I see myself (especially my body) and hide the truth of it behind a sarcastic or joking tone. It's a hard habit to break, but I'm working on it.
I also totally get feeling like dysfunction IS your norm; it's basically become your comfort zone, even if it is a patently uncomfortable place to be in. Hope isn't easy to hold onto, and every time something goes wrong or downhill, it's so tempting to just set your hopes down rather than risk disappointment. But here's the thing about that--the only guarantee in life is change. What's good now may not be good later, but conversely, what's bad now may not always be so bad.
I don't really think anyone is "normal," but I do think it is possible to reach a place where you have more good days than bad, and those good times will give you more and more to hold onto when you need something to get you through the bad.
The fact that you no longer self-harm (or so I'm assuming, since you mentioned that you "used to," past tense) is already proof that you are capable of moving forward with your life. It probably wasn't easy, but you did it. And you can keep moving forward; it will take time, and patience, but it will be worth it. You, of all people, most deserve your own kindness, even if you don't think you do.
Wishing you the best of luck, Brittney.
Very revealing. My problem is I am so used to emotionally harming mechanisms that I am hardly even aware of them, they feel like they are a part of me, of my identity, How can I separate myself from those thoughts?
Thank you for your comment! I actually just posted a video about a useful technique that can help with that: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/speakingoutaboutselfinjury/2020/6/talking-back-to-your…
Please feel free to check out our self-harm resources page as well as there is a lot of great info there that might be helpful:
I can relate well to this! I need to be much more mindful of the inner negative voice which sabotages my efforts. I no longer physically self harm but have long recognised the damage I cause to myself with emotional self harming. Thank you for your insightful post
Thank you so much for your comment! It's a good thing that you can recognize the signs of emotional self-harming -- awareness is the first step towards recovery. With some practice, you can overcome that negative voice. I wish you all the best, and please feel free to check out our self-harm resources page as there is a lot of great info there that you may find helpful: https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-homepage