Through the Eyes of a Person Who Self-Harms

People who self-harm often feel misunderstood. I found a recent research article produced by the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy that did in-depth interviews with 11 people who struggled with self-harm. This group felt that there were many misconceptions about self-harm in the general population and amongst professionals. These difficulties had a few themes.

Self-harm is not suicide. The participants felt that self-harm is different from suicide. Some of them had never been suicidal in their lives. That is not to say that self-harm is not related to suicide, they are just different. They felt that self-harm serves a different purpose. In fact, for some of them self-harm was a way of preventing suicide.

Self-harm has a role. Self-harm was a coping mechanism for these interviewees. They found that for one reason or another hurting themselves brought relief. Some found that it brought a feeling of euphoria, others used it to relieve guilt – like a self-punishment, and some found the physical pain to be a welcome distraction from their emotional pain.

Self-harm can be like an addiction. The relief from emotional pain was addictive. They had all attempted to stop the behaviour, but found it too difficult. They described having to progress in their self-harm to keep finding the relief over time.

Just like an addiction, the participants found that they became isolated from friends and family. This isolation itself sometimes became something with which they then had to use self-harming to cope. The self-harm brought temporary relief, but made the core problems worse.

They all had some type of trauma. All of the participants described some type of trauma in their childhood. These ranged from sexual abuse to parents who were abusive to each other to emotional abuse from caregivers. These events seemed to leave the participants with difficulty expressing emotion and difficulty coping.


One participant said “I didn’t learn how to share my emotions safely. I didn’t learn how to ask for help; in fact, I learned how to not ask for help.”

Help wasn’t helpful. The participants described feeling shamed, misunderstood, and discriminated against by professionals. One participant described a friend who was told to go to the “back of the line” when they told the medical professional that the injury was self-inflicted even though they were bleeding profusely. They described that attitude as “Well, you did this to yourself so you will just have to wait.” The problems became worse when they realized that even professionals didn’t understand.

The primary desires of the participants were for people to understand that self-harm was not the same as suicide, not to be judged, and for people, and especially professionals, to educate themselves.

This study aimed to deeply describe the experience of 11 people who self-harmed. This may not be your experience or even be representative of most people who self-harm. However, the journey of these individuals highlights how little most of us understand self-harm and how much these individuals need our support and understanding.



Brown, T. B., Kimball, T. (2013). Cutting to live: A phenomenology of self-harm. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39, 195-208.


About the author

About the author:

Dr. Syras Derksen, C.Psych.

Winnipeg Therapists