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 a purpose as a coping strategy. The purpose of our 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 our self-harm is. The function of the self-harm can help us understand our 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 we find it too hard to verbalise our emotions, sometimes we can let others know how we are feeling through our behaviours. It may also be easier for us to talk about the act of self-harm, rather than about how we are feeling.

A lot of 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 we are most likely to self-harm. When we self-harm, a chemical reaction occurs in our bodies which gives us a feeling of calm and relief.

For some people, how often we hurt ourselves, or the ways that we hurt ourselves, may be the only thing in our life that we feel we have control over.

When feelings of guilt, blame and self-hatred are very powerful, we might use self-harm as a way to punish ourselves.

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 us a way to feel that we are getting rid of bad experiences.

For some people, self-harming and then taking care of our injuries gives us an opportunity to provide care and nurture for ourselves that we might not feel we are able to do in other ways.

Sometimes people’s life experiences leave them feeling numb, empty, dead or unreal. For some people, hurting our body, or taking part in a risky behaviour, are ways of breaking through these feelings and experiencing something that makes us feel real and connected to reality again.

Once we know the function of our self-harm, we can start to look at finding an alternative coping strategy that might hold a similar function for you. It’s important to remember again that everyone is different and will have different functions for different coping strategies. You might try lots of different coping strategies before you find one that works for you. We have created tools you can use to help you find one that works from you. You can find these tools on our ‘I need support’ page. 


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