Understanding Self-Mutilation

By Apr 26, 2017 May 17th, 2017 No Comments

Self-mutilation, or self-harm, refers to the compulsive behaviour of injuring oneself intentionally. This can be done in any number of ways – from cutting to bruising… and, in severe cases, even breaking bones.

It is most common amongst teenagers and young adults; however, for some, it remains a problem that needs to be dealt with throughout one’s lifetime. Below, we take a look at the reasons why people may start to self-harm, as well as how to seek help for yourself or someone you love.

The Why?

It’s important to understand that the majority of self-harmers are NOT suicidal. On the contrary, they rely on cutting and hurting themselves as a coping mechanism during times of stress and when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Regardless of the reasons behind the behaviour, cutting is a sign of emotional distress and many sufferers will do their very best to hide the evidence of their actions from the world. Some reasons why people may turn to self-mutilation include the following:

  • They are trying to deal with powerful emotions and attempt to deal with these emotions by making them tangible
  • They feel the need to punish themselves for something
  • They feel immense amounts of pressure to achieve perfection (at school, in extra-mural activities, at work etc.)
  • They feel relieved after they cut due to the rush of endorphins that the body releases
  • They do it as a way in which to supress other compulsions.
  • They feel in control when they cut, especially when they feel powerless in other aspects of their lives.

The Signs

People who self-harm have likely been doing it for a while and will have become very good at hiding it. As a result, knowing for sure if someone is hurting themselves intentionally can be difficult. Having said this, those who cut may:

  • Constantly wear long sleeves even in warmer weather. They may also try to conceal their wounds by wearing a multitude of bracelets.
  • Demonstrate a change in mood or demeanour. They may seem down or distracted.
  • Be quick to make excuses if they are confronted about any injuries.

While self-harm can indeed cause sufferers to become less attentive and less reliable, the vast majority of self-harmers are actually perfectionists who generally do quite well for themselves. They may be over-achievers, come across as well-adjusted and they may even seem like extremely happy people overall.

The Time for Help

If you know someone who self-mutilates, or if you are a self-harmer yourself and you want to stop, you are encouraged to join the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

There are various support groups all over the country that will be there to help you, or your loved one, on your journey to recovery. Simply call 011 234 4837 or 0800 20 50 26 to speak to a trained counsellor. You may also opt to send an email to

While self-harm can become a compulsive, addictive behaviour, with the right support, it is entirely possible to overcome. The most important thing is for the sufferer to address the underlying reasons for their behaviour and to find alternative, healthy coping mechanisms. From there, they can learn to love themselves and their bodies once again.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

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