How can I understand self-harm behavior?

 Everyone experiences emotional pain to some degree (Van der Kolk, 2002).  Emotional pain can be perceived as the path toward growth, or as harmful to all that is good.  There are those among us who have experienced seemingly unbearable emotional pain.  As a result of the personal response to these types of experiences, some people may overflow discouragement.  They may feel that they have no purpose and believe themselves to be burdens to the world.  In this case, emotional pain becomes unresolvable.  Many believe that this unanswered woundedness is carried in the body and expressed through mental illness, anxiety, mood disorders, and depression. 

 In fact, Armando Favazza (2011), a leading researcher of self-harm behavior describes all self-mutilative behaviors as forms of self-help that provide rapid, although temporary, relief from upsetting symptoms like growing anxiety, feelings of being disconnected from one’s own body, hurried thoughts, and rapidly shifting emotions.  Adults and teens who engage in self-harm behaviors are making attempts to resolve intense feelings of angst.  These behaviors can restore a sense of control and temporarily provide relief from extreme emotions.

 Imagine riding a roller coaster that is traveling faster and faster along the track.  Your head spins, your neck aches, and you wish to stop, but you have no way to free yourself from the straps holding you to the speeding car.  You want to put out your hand or foot or anything that will stop your plummet into the abyss.  You resist these urges because you know two things.  You know that the ride will eventually end, and you know that the consequences for extending a limb to stop yourself would be disastrous.  A person who engages in self harm does not know when or even if the ride will end; and this person does not consider the physical consequences of extending a foot to be worse than the mental anguish currently being experienced (Kortge, Meade, & Tennant, 2013).

 If you are interested in understanding more about self-harm, pick up A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain by Marilee Strong and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.  Maya Angelou can also be found at her website


Favazza, A. (2011). Bodies under seige. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2002). Posttraumatic therapy in the age of neuroscience. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(3), 381-393.

Kortge, R., Meade, T., & Tennant, A. (2013). Interpersonal and intrapersonal functions of deliberate self-harm (DSH): A psychometric examination of the inventory of statements about self-injury (ISAS) scale. Behaviour Change, 30(1), 24-35.