Understanding Self-Harm: Why Do People Cut?


There is no singular reason why a person self-harms. For many, self-harm is coping mechanism. It can be a way to deal with deep emotional pain, process feelings that cannot be expressed in words, provide a distraction from other stresses and worries, or even a way to feel some form of relief.

To those who have never self-harmed, it often sounds illogical – how could hurting yourself possibly make you feel better? However, to those engaging in self-harming behaviours, it often feels as if it is something they cannot control. In order to process and cope with painful feelings like sadness, self-loathing, emptiness and guilt, there is a compulsion to injure oneself.

While this may provide a temporary sense of relief, it does not take long before the painful feelings resurface and the desire to hurt oneself returns. It’s like putting your finger over a hole in a water balloon – it may stop the leak, but pretty soon you’ll move your finger and it will all come rushing out.

With self-harm, there often comes a layer of secrecy. Many people feel shame over their actions or worry that others simply will not understand. However, living in a world of secrecy can be overwhelming. Trying to manage such a heavy burden alone often puts a strain on relationships with family and friends. Consequently, this can lead to increased feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, which, in turn, further isolates the individual while perpetuating the self-harming behaviours.

Because clothing can mask signs of physical injuries, and calm responses such as “I’m fine, don’t worry about me” can hide signs of inner struggle, determining if a loved one is self-harming can be very challenging. This is why it is important to be aware of warning signs and symptoms of self-harm.

Warning Signs of Self-Harm:

  • Presence of wounds and scars that cannot be explained – may appear as cuts, bruises, burns on the wrists, arms, thighs and chest
  • Presence of blood stains on clothes, bed, towels
  • Possession of sharp objects like razors, knives, needles, glass shards, nails
  • “Accidental” marks such as bruises, scars, cuts, burns frequently appear due to the individuals supposed ‘clumsiness’
  • Wear clothing that covers up their body such as long pants or sleeves even in hot temperatures
  • Retreating off by oneself for long periods of time, particular in the bedroom or the bathroom
  • Irritability and isolating oneself

While self-harm may feel like it is helping in the short term, the feeling of relief is temporary and can come at a cost. Some of the negative consequences are as follows:

Costs of self-harm

  • A brief feeling of relief – and often followed by unpleasant feelings such as guilt and shame. Further prevents you from finding healthier ways to cope.
  • It is a lonely secret to keep – and can further isolate you from friends and family.
  • You can seriously injure yourself – you may misjudge how deep you are cutting or you may end up with an infected wound.
  • Fail to resolve the deeper issue – by not processing the emotional pain in a healthy way you put yourself at risk of developing major depression, substance addiction and suicide.
  • Become addicted to self-harm – what starts off as an impulse can turn into a compulsive habit that is difficult to stop.

Ultimately self-harm does not solve the problems that led to the self-harming behaviours in the first place.If you or someone you know engages in self-harming behaviours, address it.

Reach out to someone and share what you are going through. While it can be difficult to find the courage to confide in someone or to find a person you feel you can trust, it can serve as a major relief to get it off of your chest.

If you feel there is no one you can trust with this sensitive information or are uncomfortable telling someone you know – please reach out to WeListen UK via email {welisten.uk@gmail.com} or any of the following organisations:

Mind Infoline – Helpline in the UK that provides assistance and information on self-harm |Call: 0300 123 3393 or Text: 86463

Teen lineHelpline in the US for help with self-injury and cutting and other mental health issues | Call: 310-855-4673 or Text: 839863

Kids Help PhoneHelpline in Canada for children and teens dealing with cutting, self-harm and other mental health issues | Call: 1-800-668-6868


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