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

Self-harm takes many different forms. It can encompass a range of different things that people do to themselves to deal with painful and difficult emotions.

Two young women are chatting and holding books

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.

Self-harm has many masks

If you ask people what they think of when you say self-harm, most will say physical forms like ‘cutting’, ‘burning’ or ‘poisoning’. This type of self-harm is common and accounts for lots of people. But for some people, their form of 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
  • Overeating until you feel sick or are actually sick
  • Over-exercising to the point of hurting yourself or obsessing over exercise
  • Frequent casual sex, violent sex or oversharing sexual images of yourself online
  • Punishing yourself by withdrawing socially or staying in toxic relationships
  • Continually telling yourself you’re worthless or denying yourself the things that make you happy

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 get help

If you think you’re self-harming and you would like to recover, that’s fantastic. A big part of overcoming self-harm is about replacing unhealthy behaviours with healthy ones. You can read more about that herehere, and here. 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 can teach you how to talk about your 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, talk to your GP who will be able to refer you to someone.
  • 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 to. (Click here) 

Next Steps

  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


Updated on 01-Mar-2019

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