Written By: Amber Hollingsworth, LPC


Cutting, burning, or otherwise harming yourself (self injurious behavior) is probably the least understood addiction we treat at Hope For Families.  It’s difficult to understand why someone would deliberately hurt themselves.  Drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, exercise, and even gambling are a little easier to understand as far as how people could derive enjoyment from these things. 

But, trying to understand why someone would purposefully hurt themselves is a little more difficult to wrap our heads around.

It may seem like this is a new phenomenon, but self injury has actually been around for a very long time. There are, in fact, historical references to self flagellation and self stoning.Let’s take a look at why people start hurting themselves and why they get addicted to self injurious behaviours …

There really are only 2 things that motivate people  and these are avoiding  pain and seeking comfort.

Believe it or not, self harming actually does both of these things for people.

Let me explain –

Have you ever hit your toe on the coffee table or slammed your elbow into the door frame?  What’s the first thing you do when this happens??  You grab the hurting body part and squeeze tightly or rub it really fast.  There is a reason we instinctively do this.   You see, our brain can only process so much stimuli at once, so when we flood our brain with the extra stimulus of pressure our brains become over flooded.  The extra incoming information drowns out some of the initial pain stimuli coming into the brain, and we basically overwhelm our brains, which results in less perceived pain.

So, when an individual feels overwhelmed with emotional distress, and they hurt themselves, the brain can’t process it all at once because it is overloaded.  Therefore, the self injury distracts the brain and creates a temporary relief from the crisis.

In addition to the distraction, the brain also releases endorphins (the body’s natural pain defense).  These endorphins can feel pleasurable (temporarily) and are also, sadly,  highly addictive.  So you see, there is actually a scientific explanation to why an individual would do this to themselves.

However,  this kind of behavior is very scary and confusing to family and friends.  Often their first response is to rush to the aide of an individual who has engaged in self harming behavior.  They might offer comfort support and help, which makes sense, since we naturally want to help someone who is so obviously in pain.  However, this sometimes positively reinforces this maladaptive coping skill.  This reinforcement only further entrenches this behavior because the individual is getting attention and they can learn the only way to get their needs met in a relationship is to be in a crisis.

Sometimes, though, the reaction from parents or loved one  is one of anger or embarrassment and that truly propagates the issue, because the individual doing the self harming is not able to use their voice to express their feelings, or talk about what is going on, and the self injurious behavior IS their way of “speaking”.   If this is the case, to  become angry about it only continues the cycle of not being heard or able to speak.  It is important to speak frankly, lovingly, and overtly about what is being seen and the natural concerns this behavior generates.

If not,  this behavior begins to frustrate or overwhelm the person’s supports.  Family and friends begin to feel manipulated and overwhelmed by the perpetual crisis, and many times they turn away from the individual.  When this happens, it creates more shame, guilt, and loneliness which further exacerbates the problem.

As you can see, self injury works well at first, and then it becomes less effective.  The body builds up tolerance to the endorphins which means they often have to engage in more extreme self injury and the family and friends eventually grow tired of “rescuing” the individual.  What once created comfort and support becomes no longer effective biologically or psychologically.  Basically it backfires.

Just like every other addiction, it works for a while and then it starts to work against you.  For example, when young people first start using drugs, they usually get more friends, feel more confident and have lots of fun.  In the end, they lose all their friends, their family is angry with them, they hate themselves, and the drugs aren’t fun anymore.  Unfortunately, by this point they have developed an addiction and they can’t stop when they want to.  It’s the same thing with Self Injurious Behaviours –  eventually it pushes everyone away from you.  You end up feeling more lonely and isolated than ever.

It’s important to remember all addictions are actually just coping skills.  It’s not that they are completely ineffective.  These skills serve a purpose and they do work to some degree. The problem is they cause increasing damage and people get trapped in the cycle.

It’s not easy to get out of these cycles, and although family and friends try like crazy to help, most of the time they inadvertently make it worse.  At Hope For Families, we know  it’s not enough to tell someone they need to stop (drinking, drugging, cutting, gambling, etc….).  We have to identify what the behavior is doing  for that individual and help them find another way to get those needs met.  Additionally, we have to intervene with the family and help them break patterns that may be accidentally fueling these problematic behaviours.

It may seem like Self Injury and Addiction are very different, but the underlying issues are the same.  If you or someone you love are stuck in a cycle of drinking, drugs, cutting, gambling, burning, spending, exercising or any other compulsive behavior, please seek help.  It won’t be enough to just stop, you’ve got to fix the real issue, otherwise you will likely just keep developing one problematic coping skill after another.

As with any addictive behavior, it is important to seek professional guidance to understand what is going on and how to appropriately respond.  More often than not we don’t know what to do and we need help in redirecting our thoughts and behaviours to make a positive difference with regard to the person doing the addictive behavior, as well as how we think about ourselves and the person with the issue at hand.

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