Self-harm: an Overview and Alternatives


Self-harm, or self-injury, is the intentional, direct injuring of your body. It is also sometimes calling self-mutilation or cutting. It is usually done as a way of dealing with painful feelings and memories, or difficult and overwhelming situations.

People harm themselves in various ways, including cutting with a blade, burning, scratching, or striking body parts. Older definitions included excessive skin picking (dermatilliomania), and hair pulling (trichotillomania), but are now classified as different problems.

There is an increased risk of suicide in those who self-harm, and self-harm is found in 40-60% of suicides. The desire to self-harm is common in some personality disorders, particularly borderline personality disorder. It may also be a symptom of other mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and dissociative disorders.

Why people self-harm?

People may self-harm for various reasons, which include:

  • To express something that is difficult to put into words
  • To turn invisible thoughts and feelings into something visible
  • To change emotional pain into physical pain
  • To regain a sense of control
  • To punish yourself for feelings and experiences
  • To stop feeling numb, disconnected, or dissociated
  • To express suicidal feelings without taking their own life
  • To escape traumatic memories

Tip 1: Emotional Literacy

Being able to feel your emotions, accurately describe them, understand them, and communicate them to others is an invaluable life skill, and those who self-harm would greatly benefit from developing emotional literacy.

According to Claude Steiner, “to be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and improves the quality of life around you.”

The following three steps should allow you to begin to develop your emotional literacy:

1) Define – What feeling or emotion am I experiencing right now? Say this out loud or write it down. (You can use this feelings wheel as a guide

2) Expand – Begin to develop a more nuanced and detailed description of what you are currently feeling. Is it just sadness or is there fear as well? Is the anger mingled with fear? What is underneath the anxiety?

3) Action – Write down a series of steps that may help you to avoid whatever caused you to feel this way, and begin to think about more healthy and mature ways to deal with, and express these feelings.

Tip 2: Journaling

Journaling, or journal therapy is a writing based therapy that involves recording the writers internal experiences, thoughts and feelings. Through reflective writing, you may gain mental and emotional clarity, a deeper understanding of yourself, and be able to establish patterns of thought and behaviour over time.

Some of the benefits of journaling include: better self-reported physical and emotional health, improved immune system, improved memory, reduced blood pressure, fewer stress-related doctor visits, improved mood and greater psychological well-being.

Below are some ideas on how to use journalling:

1) Intent – At the start of the session, declare your intent on what you wish to achieve through writing.

2) Letter Writing – Sometimes it can help to write a pretend letter. It could be directed towards anyone, including: someone who has wronged you in the past, a past relationship that never got full closure, or a deceased loved one.

3) Dialogue – Through dialogue writer, you aim to explore multiple sides of a conversation about anything. This can help you to gain a clearer perspective on the subject, and also as away to develop empathy for others, by exploring their viewpoint.

Tip 3: Other ideas

  • Snap a rubber band against your wrist
  • Find somewhere isolated and shout or scream
  • Use a red pen instead
  • Punch a cushion or punching bag
  • Exercise: circuit training, boxing, running, swimming
  • Take a shower or bath
  • Play your favourite music
  • Write a poem
  • Squeeze a stress ball
  • Skim stones on a lake


“Don’t make a permanent decision for your temporary emotion.” ~ Unknown

“Unspeakable feelings need to find expression in words. However… verbalization of very intense feelings may be a difficult task.” ~ James A. Chu

“Self-destructiveness may be a primary form of communication for those who do not yet have ways to tame their excruciating inner conflicts and feelings and who cannot yet turn to others for support.” ~ James A. Chu

“If you spend your time hoping someone will suffer the consequences for what they did to your heart, then you’re allowing them to hurt you a second time in your mind.” ~ Shannon L. Alder

“Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” ~ Jordan B. Peterson

“Self-harm – the world will come at you with knives anyway. You do not need to beat them to it.” ~ Caitlin Moran

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