Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), while concerning, is a commonly misunderstood behavior. While it does involve intentional harm to oneself, it does not necessarily mean the act was meant to be life-ending. It can be difficult for some to understand why someone would intentionally want to cause pain to themselves. But once we can empathize how deeply someone must be emotionally hurting to get to that point, we can be of better help to them and their healing. Some reasons people may want to engage in NSSI are:
1. Stopping intense emotional pain. Depression is more than simply sadness and anxiety is more than simply worry. Episodes of mental illness do not reflect a weakness in character, rather they are intensely debilitating diseases. The emotional pain that accompanies these can be unbearable, so much so that any option to stop it, if only for a moment, is better than going on feeling the same. NSSI provides distraction from emotional pain and can be relieving for some.
2. Coping with underlying trauma. Some people who engaged in NSSI have a long history of trauma and may have been told they deserve to hurt. They could have unresolved anger, fear, or sadness they want to let out but don’t know how. People with histories of trauma have likely not learned how to safely experience and express their emotions, so it is understandable why self-harm would actually make sense to them.
3. To feel anything at all. Emotions are one of the experiences that make us uniquely human. When we go through seasons of life feeling numb, checked out, or not present, we may actually lose a sense of who and where we are. We may even get to the point of questioning whether we are truly alive. NSSI gives people who feel numb a moment of feeling alive again, a moment to connect back to the essence of who they are.
4. Communicating pain to others. It can be really difficult to express intense emotions. Those who self-harm may not have the resources to know how to express their pain in words.
When you suspect or notice someone who is self-harming, it is important to remember they are likely feeling ashamed about it already. Treating them like outcasts, showing disgust, or questioning them in front of others will only increase that shame and likely turn them straight to self-harm again. We must let them know it is never okay to hurt themselves while reminding them they are not any less worthy of being loved and cared for because they have.
If you or anyone you know are struggling with self-harm and you are in the Chicagoland area, feel free to contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. at 708-633-8000.
Written by Kathryn
2021 Graduate Intern