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 does have a 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 the needs of the person we are supporting. 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 people find 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. We can only bottle up our 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 body 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 thing 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 peoples 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 the person you are supporting feels may hold a similar function. 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 the person you are supporting. 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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