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Psychology behind Self Mutilation

By Sneha Kumar


  • Self-harm is an act of deliberately hurting one’s own self and it is often linked with mental distress and is a symptom of a mental illness.

  • Self-harm refers to causing physical harm by cutting, burning, scratching, pinching, head banging or practicing other forms of external injuries. However, it may also include hurting oneself internally/emotionally by abusing drugs/alcohol or over-dosage of medicines.


Why do people self-harm?

Individuals who indulge in the act of self-mutilation may do so to release bottled up feelings of regret, shame, guilt, anger, sadness or to punish oneself. Though it has been proved that such ways of dealing with emotions, may cause them to stay for even longer and worsen the situation, even if the individual has no intention of causing themselves long lasting harm or damage.

People who self-harm, commonly report it as a way of trying to get rid of the feeling of emptiness, emotional numbness or being unable to express one’s emotions. Self-harm is their way to cope with such problems since they can sense the physical pain more evidently which causes temporary relief from this never-ending emotional numbness/emptiness. Self-injury can also be a way of having control over one’s emotions when times get overwhelming.

People who have been victims of early childhood trauma, sexual/verbal/physical abuse, or other mental health conditions/ illnesses such depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, or psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia may also practice self-harm to regain the sense of control over oneself after experiencing a particularly disturbing or traumatizing event.


How is self-mutilation different from attempting suicide?

Suicide is the act of intentionally ending one’s own life while people practicing self-harm may just be doing so to temporarily seek relief from disturbing emotions or to gain control over their emotional state. Though people who self-injure do not intend on committing suicide, they may cause more harm than intended which could lead to medical complications or even death. A person may become desperate for the temporarily sense of control caused by self-mutilation due to its addictive nature which may indirectly lead them to commit suicidal attempts.


How to help someone who self harms?

Before listing the ways in which we can help a suffering person, I would kindly like to mention that no matter how good your intention might be by counselling a patient yourself or giving them your advice (if you are not a psychologist) may not quite affect or improve their situation. In fact, sometimes we may unintentionally say something that could hurt their feelings and cause worse consequences.

However, listening to their problems, emotions or experiences and assuring them that you are always

there for them even if self-harm is not discussed directly can help them reduce the urge to self-harm and can cause relief to a certain extent. But that alone won’t help permanently cure their mental state and professional help must be provided.

Anyone who is suffering from self-mutilation, should firstly seek professional help by consulting a licensed therapist who can help the individual by making them understand the root cause of their behavior and offering them healthier alternative coping mechanisms or prescribing them certain medications.


A Reminder!

  • If you are suffering through a mental illness, please do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. You are not alone and deserve to lead a happy life just like any other person. It is not something to be ashamed of or feel guilty about.

  • Mental illnesses are as severe and real as any other type of illnesses and must be taken seriously.

  • Mental illnesses are NOT something that one can just “snap out of."

  • Experiencing mental health issues is not a "phase" that “happens to everyone.”

  • There is a difference between feeling sad, down, or overwhelmed and suffering through a mental illness such as clinical depression, anxiety disorder, etc.

  • Your economic or social background does not determine whether you are “eligible” to suffer through mental health issues, anyone can experience mental illnesses regardless of his/her profile, age, gender, lifestyle etc.

  • Not all people suffering through mental health issues show identifiable symptoms. One may be plastering a smile on their face everyday and battling their struggles alone behind that mask without anyone even noticing.

  • A person who is not a licensed psychologist should not counsel or offer their own advice to a patient as it may unintentionally end up worsening the patient’s situation and hurting their emotions.

  • A person suffering through a mental illness is NOT “trying to seek attention"!

  • You cannot ever imagine what one might be going through in their own head. Saying phrases such as “I feel you” or “I feel the same way” to a patient would only lead to them feeling like you are not taking their mental health seriously, or that no one will ever understand them, which may lead to them never opening up to anyone ever and battling alone.


Today, P. (2021). Self-Harm. Psychology Today.


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