What is Self-harm?

Self-harm is when you deliberately hurt yourself as a way of dealing with difficult and painful feelings. It can include doing the following things to yourself:

  • Cutting
  • Scratching/Picking at skin
  • Hair pulling
  • Burning
  • Punching
  • Risky behaviour such as inhaling/sniffing harmful substances or taking overdoses of tablets/medicines.
  • Using alcohol or drugs
  • Overeating or starving yourself

Some people self-harm regularly, while others do it only once or a few times.

Self-harm and Sexual Abuse

There are many reasons why people may self-harm, including losing someone you love, bullying or feeling unloved and uncared for. However, people who have been sexually abused also sometimes use self-harm as a way of dealing with the painful feelings that they have.

There are many reasons for using self-harm as a way of coping with sexual abuse, which may include the following:

  • Letting out all the pain inside – sometimes it is hard for people to express their feelings, which may hurt so much that they are unbearable. Self-harm can be a way of showing their hurt and sorrow.
  • Distraction from problems – people may hurt themselves as a way of taking their mind off painful feelings.
  • Being in control – people who have been sexually abused or raped often feel powerless, and hurting themselves might help them feel they have control over something in their lives.
  • Releasing rage and anger – sometimes people find it hard to express their anger – perhaps they have been told that it is not acceptable to show anger. Self-harm may be a way of showing people how angry you are with them.
  • Punishing yourself – people who have been sexually abused or raped often feel ashamed and guilty, even though they have done nothing wrong. People sometimes deal with these feelings by hurting themselves, so they have given themselves the punishment they feel they deserve.
  • Crying out for help – self-harm may be a desperate way of communicating to other people that something bad is happening to you.
  • Feeling ‘real’ and alive – many people who have been sexually abused say they feel disconnected from their body or ‘not here’. Self-harm is a way of re-connecting with their body, even if only for a short time.

Remember that self harming can be dangerous and even fatal, sometimes people make mistakes and do things they didn’t mean to do. If you are self harming it is really important that you find someone to talk to and get some help.

What can you do if you feel someone you know is self harming?

If someone you love and care about is self-harming, it can be very difficult to cope with the feelings you have about this. You may be afraid for them and shock, grief, guilt, anger and a sense of helplessness are just a few of the emotions you may go through. You, yourself, may need help and support from family, friends or professionals.

You can offer the person support, by gently encouraging them to examine their feelings and to talk to someone about why they self-harm. The fact that you want to understand will mean a great deal. Try not to deal with your own uncomfortable feelings by panicking, blaming the other person or treating them as if they are mad.

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