What is self-mutilation?

Self-mutilation or self-injury is the act of deliberate, repetitive, impulsive, non-lethal harming of one’s body. Many people who self-harm do not even know they are doing it. For example, some people pinch themselves until they create a scar or pick at their fingernails until they bleed. The adoption of self-injury practices usually indicates an unhealthy coping response.

Currently, there is no clear diagnostic category for the disorder, with some debate still as to what would delineate symptoms of the disorder from the disorder itself, as well as where it should best be accommodated. Self-harm is most easily viewed as a form of pain (adrenaline) addiction / impulse-control disorder. Many mental health practitioners currently diagnose it under Impulse-control Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

The actual act of self-harm may include:

  • cutting
  • scratching
  • picking scabs or interfering with wound healing
  • burning
  • punching self or objects
  • infecting oneself
  • inserting objects into body openings
  • bruising or breaking bones
  • some forms of hair pulling
  • excessive body piercing

A self-harmer doesn’t usually start with a method to hurt themselves; they start off with horrible circumstances and psychologically painful thoughts. Some self-harmers suffer harsh early environments, such as:

  • Early environments of emotionally abuse. Children are sometimes told they are bad, sinful, selfish, hurtful, hateful, uncaring, crazy or weird. This often converts to feelings of guilt, shame, self-hatred and wanting to hurt or punish themselves.
  • Early environments of physical and/or sexual abuse (beatings, threats or torture). These kids are often also blamed for the abuse. Often the families have covered up the abuse. This kind of environment can lead to resentment, intense anger, and repressed rage, with defiance, for example, ‘You can’t make me change’, or alternatively with feelings of worthlessness.

Reasons people self-harm

Research shows that people hurt themselves for many and varied reasons. Often these reasons are overdetermined. Some of these reasons for self-harm or self-mutilation might include:

  • getting back at an abusive person through self-mutilation and to show external signs of the internal hurt
  • receiving a high like an ‘adrenaline rush’ from the self-harm
  • becoming numb to pain through self-harm
  • using self-harm as a way of feeling alive, while struggling with depression, helplessness and hopelessness
  • using self-harm as a way of escaping emotional feelings of harm from others
  • being panicked and out of control and needing to do anything to cope with the moment
  • attempts to get attention through guilt and fear, or even awe (in some teenage social circles)
  • suicide attempts
  • culturally and sub-culturally sanctioned self-harm (not always entirely within the control of the individual), which can cover a spectrum from earrings and tattoos, through male circumcision to other ritual maiming ceremonies in order to pass through manhood, and even to extremely barbaric activities such as female circumcision


How do I get help for myself or my loved one?

The first step in getting help is finding out whether you have a problem. A trained clinical psychologist can effectively perform a professional assessment, which will identify whether you have any problem areas, and will recommend the treatment most appropriate for you if necessary.

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