Self-Harming: We All Do It

And it can help us show more empathy to others.

Posted May 22, 2020

 flyparade/Getty Images
Source: flyparade/Getty Images

This month, UK charities reported that reduction in mental health services during the coronavirus pandemic has left existing and would-be patients struggling to cope, putting them at greater risk of self-harm or suicide attempts. To many people, injuring one’s own body by cutting, burning, stabbing or trying to remove it violently from existence feels incomprehensible. So, at this difficult time for everyone, it is crucial to understand what lies behind self-harming behaviour. 

Human givens practitioner Emily Gajewski, who delivers a sensitive and highly valuable online course called, “Overcoming Self-Harm,” says, “Although self-injury can be quite difficult to relate to, the mechanism of self-harm is something that is common to all of us." She views it as a continuum: “At its beginning are behaviours like smoking, drinking too much alcohol, negative self-talk, spending money you haven’t got, gambling, or being promiscuous in a way that is harmful to ourselves.”

One or more of these behaviours may strike a chord with us as something we may resort to when under more life stress than we can currently cope with. So someone may have that extra glass of wine (or three), reach for a cigarette when they gave up years ago, turn to novelty sex as a way to zone out of problems for a while, or seek the high of placing a bet that just might transform their fortunes.

Indeed, a YouGov poll found that betting has increased during the lockdown, as people struggle to cope with isolation and lack of normal activity. Two-thirds of established gamblers increased time or money spent gambling. And there were big jumps in online slot machine, poker, and virtual sports gambling, according to data collected from gambling firms.

Such activities, if not out of control, can seem to help get us through, even though they all have serious potential to hurt our physical or emotional health. But, as Gajewski describes, reaching the point where stress is overwhelming is when self-harming may tip into self-injury. The rationale for it is exactly the same: a need, just a more desperate one, for relief or dulling of mental pain (this time through physical pain), which the accompanying release of body chemicals temporarily brings about, helping us get through that rock-bottom moment. 

Self-harm always gives us a message. It signifies that needs are not being met in a healthy way or, at the self-injury end of the continuum, hardly being met at all. Gajewski formerly worked with seriously self-harming women, who had been severely abused as children. As a result, they had not learned the trust and connection and emotional equilibrium that develop from being loved and cared for, and had great difficulty in regulating their own out-of-control emotions. 

What moved them forward, in the end, was not restraint or removal of self-harming tools but help in how to get their emotional needs met more healthily—particularly those for security, autonomy, achievement, respect, emotional and community connection, meaning and purpose. It was not a quick fix.

But sometimes, it can be quite quick, if recognised and acted on early enough. I remember working with a young lad, aged 19 and unable to get a job, whose concerned mother asked me to see him because he spent all day in his room and his arms were crisscrossed with razor cuts. He was a gentle soul and, it gradually emerged, he had been cripplingly shy at school, preventing him from finding friends, let alone a girlfriend, or putting himself forward sufficiently to find a job. 

Perhaps to his surprise, I acknowledged the cuts he showed me and then focused instead on his talents and qualities, teaching him the social skills he had missed out on and giving him some unthreatening tasks to do to try them out. I saw him three times. A while later, his mother reported that he had got a much-wanted apprenticeship, had found a girlfriend—and that the crisscross marks were all fading. 

It is shocking if we discover that someone we care about is self-harming and, as Gajewski says, that makes it doubly important not to rush to judgment but to listen and try to find out, with genuine curiosity and empathy, what is making life feel so intolerable for them at this time. And then we may more clearly see what needs are unmet and help them find ways to meet them, or direct them to someone else who can do so. 

If you have a cat, you know that if you point at something, they will look at your finger instead of what you are pointing at. Focusing on the self-harming behaviour instead of what it points to reminds me of that.