Common Motives Behind Self-Harm

Self-harm has a logic all its own. What may seem strange to those outside the struggle, makes sense to those who indulge in the habit. Self-harm does something for those who utilize it, that is, in part, why they continue to engage in the behavior. Seeking to understand the motivations behind the behavior will allow effective counselors to do more to help. While each person is unique and their motivations are, to some degree, their own, there are several common motives that we can explore to help make sense of the behavior. There are four common motivations that may drive the destructive behavior of self-harm.

The most common reason people engage in self-injury is to obtain some form of emotional relief. Emotions can become overwhelming and when they get that way we become desperate to make them stop. We can feel like we are going crazy, that our insides are ready to bust, that if these feelings don’t go away we are going to be forced to do something drastic! “They must stop,” we tell ourselves. And so cutting ourselves, or burning ours skin, etc. becomes a way to make the emotions stop. This logic can work to several different ways:

Distraction – actual physical pain causes my brain to divert attention from the internal emotional problems to the physical symptoms. The body goes into survival mode and starts pouring attention and energy into stopping the pain and remedying the cut or the burn.

Expression – Sometimes, self-harm serves as a means of expressing internal pain. Some individuals will speak of feeling out of control with their emotions, being unable to express exactly how they feel. Self-harm can serve as a way to manifest the internal pain – it gives expression where there are no words. “I hurt this much!”

Release of tension – the pain of self-injury can also be a release of internal tension. The build-up of emotions needs to find some way to escape, to be expressed. Some individuals will say that: “The Blood screams for me – it shouts out when I can’t.” Pain can also make emotions clear and concrete. Sometimes it can be hard to identify exactly why we are upset. Injury allows us to manifest a pain, identify something clearly that is causing us hurt and focus on it. It’s not the cause of the internal pain, but it allows us to identify something which is causing pain.

Feelings of Control – finally, our emotions can make us feel like we are losing control. If I can’t control how I feel, can’t stop the anger, the anxiety, the crying, then I feel out of control, but self-injury returns control to my hands. I can focus my attention where I want. I can make the pain start and stop. I am in the driver seat with self-injury. I can decide when I hurt, how much I hurt, and where I experience the hurt. I am the master of my pain.

At other times, self-injury can be about punishing ourselves. There are times where an individual believes that they deserve to feel pain. They feel some sense of guilt, either real, self-imposed, or imposed by others and they need relief. Self-harm becomes a form of asceticism or self-punishment in such occasions. We might think of it in terms of Self-atonement. 

There are lots of parallels between self-harm as punishment and the practice of sacrificial atonement. Consider, for example, the desire for blood. Often self-injurers have described the sense of peace that they immediately feel at the sight of their own blood. It is calming. Blood is powerful, in fact the Bible tells us that the “life is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11), and the author Hebrews tells us that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sin (Heb. 9:22). So blood, from a Biblical standpoint, is important. Our blood, however, does not solve problems nor make payment for sin. Only Christ’s blood can rescue us from sin, and His blood can also rescue us from our flawed efforts to rescue ourselves.

At other times, the desire to punish ourselves may arise from disdain over a certain body part or certain action we participated in. This is very common among abuse victims. So, one young lady spoke of the need to scar her breasts because of shame over assault. Some men and women have a sense of feeling betrayed by their body and so they punish themselves. It’s important to note here that while abuse is sometimes a part of the picture in self-harm, it’s not as frequent as you might think. Recent research suggests that less than half of those who self-abuse also have past abuse in their lives (Gratz, Conrad, & Roemer, “Risk Factors for Deliberate Self-Harm Among College Students”). Counselors should be careful, then,  about leaping to this conclusion without other corroborating support.

Another reason some may engage in self-injurious behavior is to awaken themselves in the midst of a dissociative episode. Dissociation is the experience of separating one area of thought from another thought processes. So, a person who dissociates may find their emotions, behaviors, or consciousness seems independent of their rest of them. For example, a person in a dissociative state may feel like they are doing things that they aren’t telling themselves to do. They may have a sense that they are feeling things that they can’t explain, or that their body feels like it is not their own. In the midst of a dissociative episode self-harm has been known to reorient someone towards the present, bringing them back to reality and back in line with themselves. So, someone may train themselves to cut, or bruise, or pluck hair in order to sort of “wake up” from the dissociative state.

Finally, self-harm can become a habituated pattern of seeking some sort of rush. In actuality, self-harm is often compared to addiction and substance abuse. The practice does create a natural rush or high. Consider natural physiology: when we encounter a stressful situation, like pain, the body responds with natural defenses. The brain is flooded with endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin to help relieve the pain. These chemicals can give us a sense of relaxation, pleasure, and chemical payoff. In some cases, then, cutting can actually become addictive and it is often treated as a behavioral addiction within the psychological community. One clinical researcher has expressed the dynamic this way:

The physiological reason for this (repetitive cutting) could be the release of endorphins which flood the body and create a sense of well-being, producing temporary postponement of distress” (Sharkey, “Self-Wounding: A Literature Review”).

This is a unique motivation that warrants further discussion, but it is important consider it as a potential factor for someone’s continuance in the destructive behavior.

Biblical counselors will want to be aware of these common motives and seek to understand how the Bible speaks back to each uniquely. When we understand the possible why of a behavior, we can speak God’s truth, grace, and hope to it in a tailor-made way. At first glance it may feel like the Bible doesn’t speak to issues of self-harm, but when you understand these specific motivations you find the Bible has much to say.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve also been told (by a cutter) that it is also used when their is emotional overload and the person becomes “emotionally numb” and no longer “feel” anything, that the self harm “wakes them up” again to the world around them. It is surprising to see so many different reasons or purposes behind this activity.

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