Functions of Self-Harm
Self-harm is a coping strategy which helps people to deal with distressing thoughts and emotions. One of the main things to remember is that self-harm has purpose as a coping strategy. The purpose of self-harm is often known as the function of self-harm. Before we can start to look at alternative coping strategies, we first need to find out what the function of the person’s self-harm is. The function of the self-harm can help us understand our loved one’s needs. Everyone is different, so for some people self-harm might have more than one function. Others might identify more strongly with one function. Below is a list of some of the ways in which self-harm can function as a coping strategy:
When someone finds it too hard to verbalise their emotions, sometimes they can let others know how they are feeling through their behaviours. It may also be easier for them to talk about the act of self-harm, rather than about how they are feeling.
Most people who self-harm tend to hold their feelings inside, or to try to ignore them. People can only bottle up their feelings for so long before they eventually become overwhelming. It is often at these times that a person is most likely to self-harm. When someone self-harms, a chemical reaction occurs in their bodies which leads to them feeling a sense of calm and relief.
For some people, how often they hurt themselves, or the ways that they hurt themselves, may be the only things in their life that they feel they have control over.
When feelings of guilt, blame and self-hatred are very powerful, some people may use self-harm as a way to punish themselves
Self harm can take the focus away from an emotional pain that might feel more confusing, overwhelming and difficult to deal with.
For some people, self-harm can give them a way to feel that they are getting rid of bad experiences.
For some people, self-harming and then taking care of their injuries gives them an opportunity to provide care and nurture for themselves that they might not feel they are able to do in other ways.
Sometimes people’s life experiences leave them feeling numb, empty, dead or unreal. For some people, hurting their body, or taking part in a risky behaviour, are ways of breaking through these feelings and experiencing something that makes them feel real and connected to reality again.
Once we have identified the function of the self-harm, we can start to look at identifying an alternative coping strategy which may hold a similar function for your loved one. It’s important to remember again that everyone is different and will have different functions for different coping strategies. It is also important to remember to move at a pace that is comfortable for your loved one. Supporting someone who self-harms can be a long process and it important to listen to their needs, whilst also supporting yourself. To learn more about how to do this please see the pages below.
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