Analyzing responses by 29,350 people who had a history of self-harm, researchers identified 8 major “themes” among the reasons people gave for self-harm, as well as two relatively neglected reasons.
Self-Harm Reasons: 8 Themes
The most widely researched reasons are managing distress and self-harm as a means of exerting interpersonal influence, followed by punishment and managing dissociation.
Less frequently described but nonetheless repeatedly endorsed are reasons to do with averting suicide, sensation-seeking, defining personal boundaries and expressing or coping with sexuality.
- Managing distress/affect regulation. Typical reasons include “to get relief from a terrible state of mind,” “calming myself down,” “doing this relieved the emotional pain.”
- Exerting interpersonal influence. Typical reasons include “to seek help from someone,” “to show how much you loved someone,” “letting others know the extent of my physical pain.”
- Punishment. Typical reasons include “I wanted to punish myself,” “to punish myself for positive feelings.”
- Dissociation. This included inducing a dissociative state in statements such as “I wanted to stop myself from feeling and be numb,” “produce a feeling of numbness when my feelings are too strong.”
- Sensation-seeking. With reasons such as “to feel more alive,” “when I harm myself I am doing something to generate excitement or exhilaration.”
- Averting suicide. With reasons such as “to stop myself from killing myself,” “it stopped me from killing myself.”
- Maintaining or exploring boundaries. With reasons such as “to create a symbolic boundary between myself and others,”
- Expressing and coping with sexuality. With reasons such as “to provide a sense of relief that feels much like sexual release.”
Two “Positive Reasons” for Self-Harm
Upon further analysis, researchers identified some “positive reasons” that can be grouped into two more themes – positive experience and defining the self, which do not readily fall under any of the 8 themes mentioned above.
Self-harm as a positive experience. Many responses include statements about the pleasurable feelings from self-harm, with statements such as “can be enjoyable or comforting,” “I like the blood, the blood itself, the appearance of the blood was a lot of the satisfaction.”
Self-harm as defining the self. Self-harm could be a way of demonstrating strength or toughness, for example in statements such as “I feel powerful that I am immune to being hurt by it [the cutting].” A sense of self-validation was also evident – “You know, other people are afraid of doing that… They can’t imagine how or why you would do that, and … in an arrogant sense it puts me above them.”
Amanda J. Edmondson, Cathy A. Brennan and Allan O. House. 2016. “Non-suicidal reasons for self-harm: A systematic review of self-reported accounts.” In Journal of Affective Disorders, 191: 109-117.