“I look at my scars and see … a girl who was trying to cope with something horrible that she should never have had to live through at all. My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive. They’re part of my history that’ll always be there.”

Cheryl Rainfield’s words in her novel Scars capture the complicated nature of self-harm. On one hand, self-injury is a tragic act. It’s a terrible price to pay to get through traumatic times.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to transform one’s past self-harming behaviors into powerful expressions of personal growth.

In this post, we’ll explore the nature of self-harming behaviors, discuss how they relate to addiction, and shed light on how to heal.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm (often referred to as self-injury) is any behavior done with the intent of causing injury to one’s own body. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s Self-harm page, self-harm is “hurting yourself on purpose”.

Self-harming behavior includes, but is not limited to:

  • Scratching one’s skin
  • Cutting or piercing one’s skin
  • Striking oneself, such as with an object or with a fist
  • Head-banging
  • Yanking out one’s own hair
  • Burning oneself
  • Picking at a wound and not allowing it to heal

In our work with participants at our Non 12 Step dual diagnosis addiction treatment facility, we often see people downplay and minimize their history of self-harming behaviors.

The rationale is that if they don’t fit into the usual stereotype of cutting with a razor blade, then they’re not “really” self-harming. But self-harm comes in many guises. If you’re questioning whether your behavior is self-harming, it probably is.

The Prevalence of Self-Harm

How many people struggle in this area?

According to CDC data presented at the 2012 National Center for Health Statistics Data Conference, approximately 1 in 11 people are dealing with self-harming behaviors. That represents about 9% of the overall population.

And according to a recent meta analysis of worldwide data cited by Cornell University’s website, “the pooled estimate for [individuals who self-injure] was 17.2% among adolescents, 13.4% among young adults, and 5.5% among adults.”

Additionally, the risk of self-harm is greater in certain populations, such as individuals with autism spectrum disorder. According to a 2017 report in Spectrum News, “About one in four children with autism hit, scratch or otherwise hurt themselves.”

Why Do People Self-Injure?

There are a variety of reasons why people hurt themselves, but most often we see self-harm as a form of communication. It’s an expression of tremendous mental and emotional pain.

When people feel blocked from healthy communication, they turn to self-harm in order to embody the truth of their painful inner experience.

Human beings function on four levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We have an innate need for those levels to be in sync. Thus, our external reality tends to reflect our internal reality, and our physical conditions tend to reflect our mental and emotional conditions.

As we wrote in our blog post Preventing Relapse with a Holistic Drug Rehab Model:

“Think of a human being as a system. The system wants to be in sync. If a part of the system changes, tension exists until the system comes back into alignment. If a person lacks the tools necessary to improve the other levels, then tension will result.”

This means that if we’re feeling a great deal of mental and emotional pain, we’ll create a visible expression of that pain in the physical world. Cutting and other self-harming behaviors are external manifestations of internal anguish.

How Self-Harm and Addiction Go Together

Self-harm and addiction have a lot in common. Both are linked to abuse, trauma, and neglect. Both occur most often in young adults, and both have the potential to cause a great deal of damage. Furthermore, the presence of mental health issues and substance abuse compounds the risk of self-injury.

In both self-harm and addiction, we see people who struggle to express emotion in a healthy way. Instead of giving voice to what they’re feeling and making changes, they use drugs, alcohol, or self-inflicted pain to get a sense of emotional release while avoiding the deeper issue.

In a sense, self-harm and addiction are problems layered on top of problems. Just as addiction isn’t really about the substances, self-harm isn’t really about the cuts and bruises. Rather, it’s about the unresolved mental and emotional pain driving the destructive behaviors.

What To Do if You Struggle

Here’s the good news about self-harm and addiction: If you can identify and address the reasons behind the behavior – which we call the underlying core issues – then you have an excellent chance to recover fully.

How might you begin? Find a mental health professional who is skilled at working with trauma, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. In partnership with your counselor, start looking at the painful truths you’re afraid to express in words. Once you do, you’ll be empowered to stop expressing them through the medium of your body.

Someday soon, you’ll be able to look at your self-injury and see it as the character in Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars does: as evidence of both trauma and resilience. You’ll be able to see it as proof that you survived, that you’re strong, that you found a way to endure until you could find a safe place to heal.