Not all self-harm ‘looks’ like self-harm

Two young women are chatting and holding books

T/W This article includes references to self-harm.

There are many different forms of self-harm that people do to deal with painful and difficult emotions which go beyond cutting yourself with sharp objects. Read on to find out more about these types of self-harm and how you can get help. If you need help urgently, remember we also offer a 24/7 crisis messenger service. It’s entirely anonymous, if you would like to talk, we’re here to listen.

Self-harm has many masks

Because of what we see online and on TV, when we think about self-harm we often presume this means behaviours like cutting or burning. But self-harm is more complex than this and in some cases might not even ‘look’ life self-harm. All forms of self-harm are dangerous and that’s why we want you to recognise them. If you or someone you know is displaying harmful behaviour, we’re here to help.

You don’t have to physically self-harm yourself to be engaging in self-harm. If you ask people what they think of when you say self-harm, however, most will say physical forms like ‘cutting’, ‘burning’ or ‘poisoning’. This type of self-harm is common and accounts for lots of people, but there are many other forms, such as emotional self harm.

Different forms of self harm

For some people, the way they self-harm is less obvious. It’s often more emotional or psychological than physical, and it might seem more like self-punishment than self-harm. Some examples of less obvious self-harm include:

  • Deliberately binge-drinking or taking drugs to the point of being ill.
  • Eating disorders such as overeating until you feel sick or are actually sick.
  • Over-exercising to the point of hurting yourself or obsessing over exercise.
  • Unprotected casual sex, violent sex or oversharing sexual images of yourself online.
  • Punishing yourself by withdrawing socially or staying in toxic relationships.
  • Emotional self-harm, such as telling yourself you’re worthless or denying yourself the things that make you happy.

Not everyone would classify these issues as mental illnesses, but they can still be very destructive and difficult to address. The first step is identifying that you have a problem and looking for help.

In some cases though, these examples could point to a personality disorder like borderline personality disorder (BPD), which can put you at a higher risk of impulsive behaviour such as binge drinking, having unsafe sex, or spending lots and lots of money. If you’re worried, it’s worth trying to speak to a GP – they won’t judge you and can help you understand what you might be experiencing.

How do I know if it’s self-harm?

There’s a big old grey area when it comes to diagnosing less obvious forms of self-harm. For example, if you do some of the things listed above, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re self-harming. Lots of us will have felt sick unintentionally from eating one too many doughnuts but in most cases that won’t mean we’re self-harming.

The difference is when it becomes an obsessive habit, when it’s tied up with emotional trauma and you find it hard to stop. So how can you tell if your behaviour is self-harm?

  • If you do something unhealthy or dangerous on a regular basis to distract yourself from the way you’re feeling.
  • If it feels like a habit you can’t stop.
  • If you feel like self-destruction is easier than tackling your issues.
  • If you feel emotionally ‘numb’ and unhealthy behaviours help you to ‘feel’ something.
  • If you feel stuck in your head and you regularly use unhealthy behaviour to break free from your thoughts.
  • If you feel like you don’t deserve to be happy.

How to support someone who self harms

If you think you’ve identified signs of self-harm, such as unexplained cuts or substance abuse, in a friend or family member, read this article on supporting someone who self harms.

How to get help for self harm

If you think you’re self-harming and you would like to recover, that’s fantastic. A big part of overcoming mental health conditions, whether it’s emotional self-harm or physical self-harm, is about replacing unhealthy behaviours with healthy ones.

Check out this article on how to talk to someone about self harm and this one on how to cope with a self harm relapse.

Further support could look like:

  • Getting expert advice. Organisations such as Childline, Young Minds, Samaritans and us at The Mix have helplines and chat services dedicated to helping young people access the help they deserve. They will also be able to refer you to other services which have specialist knowledge of your form of self-harm.
  • Counselling. Talking to a mental health professional can teach you how to deal with difficult feelings. It often offers that same sense of release that self-harm can but in a safe and constructive way. If you’re interested in counselling, speak to your GP who will be able to refer you to someone. The Mix also offers free counselling.
  • Boost your self esteem. The better you feel about yourself, the less likely you are to self harm. Read our article on how to build your self-esteem.
  • Talking to someone you trust. Opening up to a parent, sibling or friend could be the support you deserve. Read our article on telling someone you self-harm and if talking face to face feels too hard, you could try writing a letter.

If you’re interested in this, then you might also like to visit our Self-Harm Awareness Day page, too.

Next Steps

By Holly Turner

Updated on 12-Apr-2023

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