Self-injury can be very hard to understand, both for the people who do it and for those who support them. The main thing to realise, and accept about it though, is that it is a way of coping with difficulties. It is not madness, or attention seeking, or a suicide attempt. There are always very powerful reasons why a person chooses to injures self and, self destructive though it may seem to be, self injury is a usually a way of surviving usually in the face of great emotional pain and distress.
The reasons for self-injury are complex and can vary from individual to individual. Self-injury almost always begins in response to painful and difficult experiences in the individual’s life. Sometimes these stem from childhood trauma, though it can also be part of a distress or trauma experienced in adulthood. Often there is no single cause that can be identified for self injury, but it comes from a number of factors combining together in life which increase vulnerability and lead to a need to cope, or express feelings though self injury.
One of the ways that self-injury helps someone cope is by giving them some way, however painful, of dealing with their feelings. Many people who self injure feel unbearable distress, fear and tension. Hurting self can act as a kind of safety valve and bring a sense of great relief, which can help the individual cope better with life.
Self-injury can be about self-blaming and turning anger and frustration inwards. The person may take on all the responsibility for events that have happened in the past and so hurt self in order to punish self. The person often believes that they really deserve to be hurt.
Sometimes self-injury can feel like the only way a survivor can release feelings. The person may feel angry, sad or anguished and yet unable to shout, cry or speak to someone about it. Injuring self can, at the time, be the only means the survivor can think of expressing feelings.
Self-injury can be a way of avoiding dealing with feelings. It can be used as a means of numbing or distracting from the distress the survivor is feeling. Pain is used to distract away from other emotions that the survivor is unable or unwilling to feel or deal with at that time.
Some individuals feel that if they do not release some of the emotional distress through self-injury, then they would commit suicide instead. Therefore in this case self-injury is being used to keep alive.
Self-injury can be a way that an individual takes control over an aspect of his or her own live. This may be the only thing that the survivor has the power to control. Through self-harm the survivor can have some control or power, even if it is only the power and control to inflict wounds on self.
Self-injury can be a way of trying to communicate with others. An individual may need to make the pain visible to self and others. It can serve as a way of proving that the person is hurting and in need of care. The survivor may believe that they have no other means of communication that can be used.
The survivor may use self-injury to express anger or frustration or as a protest about something. The survivor may have no other means of registering protest or releasing feelings.
The survivor may use self-injury because she or he cannot ask for support in any other way. The person may never have learned to ask for support; or comfort, and support may have always been denied. Only through hurting self can the survivor then ask for support – ironically, support is then often denied because people misunderstand what the person is doing.
Self-injury may not, to the outside world, seem like a logical thing to do, yet, for many it serves the very practical purpose of helping the survivor cope with life and keep alive. It has its own logic and serves a function for the individual at the time.