Why Do I Hit Myself
Self-injury often occurs in the context of experiencing distressful feelings. Self-injurers may have been exposed to trauma; they may have felt overwhelmed by negative emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, shame, guilt, or grief. They may suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other mental health issues.
Many sufferers report having previously tried various ways of coping with their problems, including avoiding them, numbing out, using alcohol or drugs, eating disorders, cutting, running away, or engaging in risky behaviors. However, nothing seems to help for long. Some become desperate and reach a point where they believe there’s no solution except hurting themselves. Others may have experienced numerous attempts at treatment without any success. Many end up feeling hopeless about ever finding relief.
Symptoms of self-injury are similar across types of self-injurious behavior. People who hurt themselves typically do so repeatedly over time, even if it means only scratching or picking at skin, burning, hitting themselves hard enough to cause pain but not severe enough to break the skin, tearing off clothing, pulling hair, banging head against wall or floor, etc. The majority of those who injure themselves repeatedly use objects such as nails, pencils, pens, scissors, wire hangers, keys, knives, forks, spoons, ice cubes, bottles, cans, razors, belts, shoelaces, and belts. A few choose more exotic objects, such as fire, electric cords, glue sticks, and household cleaners. In some cases, self-injuring becomes a compulsive behavior associated with certain rituals, which can include washing one’s hands before and after each incident, checking whether the injury has healed sufficiently enough to continue, making sure the victim doesn’t see the wound, watching TV or listening to music while doing something else, taking breaks during work or school, and setting aside dedicated times for self-harm sessions.
What Causes Self-Injury?
There isn’t much research on the causes of self-injury, but experts generally agree that it happens because someone feels unable to handle intense emotional states. For example, many mental health professionals note that people who engage in self-injury often have a history of being physically abused by caregivers. This type of abuse may involve yelling, humiliation, isolation, deprivation of basic needs, physical punishment, threats, and denial of access to food, water, warmth, affection, love, and attention. Other explanations relate to genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental factors.
Some theories suggest that self-injury occurs due to deficits in serotonin production, which affects mood and appetite levels. Research indicates that certain medications used to treat depression actually increase suicidal tendencies. According to another theory, self-injury may occur when parts of the limbic system controlling survival instinct and fight or flight response get disconnected from higher cortex areas, leading to increased aggression and violent reaction. Still another suggests that self-injury is triggered by low blood sugar levels.
Another reason why people hit themselves could be that they’re rebelling against authority figures, especially those related to family, religion, culture, education, and society. Those who rebel against religious beliefs or practices might resort to self-injury to express outrage and frustration toward God, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, etc., or as an act of defiance against moral teachers. Many who were sexually abused as children may also turn to self-injury to cope with feelings of shame, embarrassment, and helplessness.
People who don’t conform to cultural norms and standards may inflict harm on themselves as a form of self expression. They may be labeled as “strange,” “weird,” “freakish,” “unfit,” “evil,” “ugly,” “worthless.” Such labels can lead to feelings of worthlessness, despair, and hopelessness. Many women who dress provocatively or wear makeup may also resort to self-injury as a way of asserting autonomy and expressing sexual desire.
The reasons behind self-injury vary according to personal preferences, circumstances, and life experiences. Here are some common ones:
Temporary Relief From Intense Feelings
To relieve painful feelings such as rage, guilt, loneliness, emptiness, betrayal, and regret.
To numb unbearable sensations caused by chronic illnesses and diseases.
To deal with extreme boredom, apathy, anxiety, and/or depression.
When someone wants to temporarily escape reality and/or avoid uncomfortable thoughts and memories.
As a result of substance use and/or drug addiction.
To alleviate excruciating pain resulting from accidents or medical interventions.
Self-injury may be done as part of a suicide attempt.
A Means of Rebellion Against Parents
As a way of rejecting parents’ values.
To assert independence and individuality.
Because parents were too strict, critical, abusive, cold, distant, or neglectful.
To make them change their attitudes and expectations.
To punish them for not meeting unrealistic parental requirements.
An Act of Rebellion Against Society
When a person believes that the world is unfair and unjust.
To seek revenge on others who’ve harmed or wronged him or her.
To protest social injustice.
To defy societal rules and regulations.
Rejection of Authority Figures
Individuals who feel powerless and disempowered may try to regain control over their lives through self-harming acts.
Someone who was neglected, emotionally abandoned, or mistreated by caregivers may hurt himself or herself to prove his or her worthiness.
An adult child may hurt his or her parent(s) to show how strong he or she really is.
A spouse may hurt his or her partner to express anger, resentment, and hostility.
Individuals who were victims of bullying or violence may try to defend themselves through self-injury.
Coping With Self-Injury
When people hurt themselves repeatedly, it’s important to seek professional help. There are several effective treatments available, including psychotherapy, medication, group therapy, art therapy, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, and counseling. If you think you need immediate assistance, contact your local emergency services or call 911.
If you’d like to learn more about self-injury and its possible causes, please read my article titled Why Does He Hit Himself? Is He Crazy?: What You Need to Know About Borderline Personality Disorder.
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