When you think of self-harm, you probably think of physical self-harm like cuts on the arms or legs, but there are many other ways that people injure themselves. Emotional self-harm isn’t as visible as physical self-harm, but its effects are just as dangerous.
Why Do People Self-harm?
When someone you know is self-harming, it can be confusing and painful. Self-harm is not widely understood, but there is a reason behind these behaviors whether the person self-harming realizes it or not.
Some people harm themselves to deal with big, overpowering emotions they don’t know how to handle. Others may do it because they feel the need to punish themselves or because it gives them a sense of control when something in their life seems out of their control. Self-harm can also give some people a feeling of relief from anxiety, grief or other feelings.
Related: The Cycle of Self-harming
Physical vs. Emotional Self-harm
Not all self-harm is physical. On emotional self-harm, Dr. Kristen Fuller says:
“Self-harm comes in all forms, and it is just as possible to cause ourselves mental and emotional self-harm that can be just as damaging to us as physical self-harm in the long run. Without treatment or awareness, emotional self-harm can potentially result in depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideations, anxiety, physical self-harm, substance abuse disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
We all have an inner dialogue, that voice inside our head that tells us how we feel about ourselves and our lives. If you’re like most people, the voice in your head can be overly critical. This is normal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy. When we let that voice take over and never question the things it tells us, we are setting ourselves up for emotional self-harm.
Dr. Fuller says:
“Our inner critic is a collection of negative voices from our past and when these voices become so big that it damages our opinions of ourselves, it can cause us deep emotional self-harm, leading to low self-esteem, self-sabotage, underachievement and sometimes even depression.”
7 Ways Self-harm Is Not Always Visible
1. Being Overly Critical of Yourself
If you notice that someone you know regularly says things like “I can’t do anything right” or “Of course I messed up – I always do,” don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re doing and offer help. Being overly critical of ourselves is a very common form of emotional self-harm.
2. Poor Self-esteem
These overly critical thoughts can lead to poor self-esteem. Self-esteem is how we think about and value ourselves. Self-esteem is impacted by our beliefs about ourselves. Sometimes those beliefs come from other people in our lives, but they often come from our own inner critic. The thing is, when we keep telling ourselves something – that we’re too this, not enough that, that we’re not going anywhere in life or that we’re never good enough – we start to believe it.
3. Self-destructive Behavior
If someone’s exhibiting the same negative behavior patterns over and over, they might be emotionally harming themselves. It might show up as participating in harmful behavior like using drugs or drinking too much, spending time with people who don’t treat them well, or as an eating disorder.
Kayla Chang, a writer who’s decided to speak out on her struggles with harming herself, says that self-harm can sometimes be invisible. Some examples of invisible self-harm include:
- Physical self-injuries that don’t leave a mark or that are easily explained away
- Emotional self-harm, like self-destructive behavior
On self-destructive behavior, Kayla says:
“Certain reckless and self-destructive behaviors can be considered a type of self-harm, too. Drug or alcohol abuse, over-spending, unsafe driving, etc. are acts of self-harm that are not always visible on the body.”
If someone says things like “I ate a piece of cake for dessert, so now I have to run a mile” or “I don’t deserve to be happy,” they might be trying to punish themselves, which is a form of emotional self-harm.
5. Social Withdrawal
Someone suffering from emotional self-harm will often withdraw socially from family and friends, and may show symptoms of depression.
6. Emotional Overwhelm
Individuals who emotionally self-harm may have mood swings or overreact to minor inconveniences. They might have trouble controlling their emotions or, on the other hand, they may show very little emotion.
7. Being a People-pleaser
It’s human nature to want to be useful or to make the people we care about happy, but when someone becomes a chronic people-pleaser, often putting others’ needs ahead of their own, it can be a sign of emotional self-harm. They may feel that their own needs don’t matter, that they don’t deserve the same things that others do, or that the only way they can have value is by doing things for others.
How to Stop Emotional Self-harm
If you’ve realized that you’re emotionally harming yourself, there are steps you can take to stop it. While going to mental health counseling is the most helpful thing you can do, there are a few ways you can try on your own to stop a harmful thought in its tracks.
- Allow yourself to be proud of what you have accomplished, rather than focusing on the things you haven’t.
- Remind yourself that it’s ok to not be perfect all the time – no one is!
- If you make a mistake and hear that troublesome voice in your head berating you (or actually catch yourself saying it out loud), stop yourself. Pause, take a deep breath, and then think of a way you can make that thought more positive. For example, “Maybe I didn’t accomplish everything I set out to do today, but I got one very important thing done.”
- Realize that these negative thoughts can actually be helpful. While the inner dialogue tends to be pretty aggressive, you can change those unhelpful (and unkind!) remarks into helpful constructive criticism. So, “You really should have moved up in your career by now. Why can’t you get promoted?” becomes “Why am I not getting promoted? I am capable and competent, so there must be something specific holding me back. I need to figure out what that is and solve the problem.”
- Practice daily affirmations. Practicing affirmations – telling yourself (either out loud or in your head) positive things like “I am capable. I am smart. I am happy. I can do anything I put my mind to.” – may seem silly, but they are very effective. Affirmations are a tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of mental health counseling, and have been proven to change the way we feel about ourselves. It’s the same as it is with the negative voice inside our heads – once we hear something enough times, we start to believe it!
Your Relief Is Our Priority
At Western Tidewater CSB, the relief of our community members is our number one priority. That’s why we strive to make behavioral health care available and accessible to all. If you or someone you know is dealing with emotional self-harm, another mental health condition, or substance abuse, we can help. We offer mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, and more.
Make an appointment for same-day access here.
If you need to talk to someone right away, we are here for you! Call the Region Five Crisis Line anytime, 24/7, to talk to a trained counselor. They will listen and, if you want, provide support and resources.
Call 757-656-7755 for help now.
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