Why do People Self-Injure?

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A Kaleidoscope of Reasons

Self-injury can be difficult to understand, as it appears to go against humans' innate desire to avoid harm. However, the reasons someone might injure themselves on purpose are often similar to the reasons people engage in other behaviours.

 

Individuals who have self-injured often report more than one reason for their self-injury, and their reasons may change over time. The functions of self-injury can be classified into two broad categories: intrapersonal and interpersonal. Self-injury for intrapersonal reasons is more common than for interpersonal reasons (Taylor et al., 2018).

Interpersonal functions

Intrapersonal reasons have to do with an individual's internal state, including thoughts and emotions. There are three main intrapersonal functions:

  1. Emotion regulation. The most commonly reported reason to engage in self-injury is to manage emotional experiences. This includes escaping an unwanted emotions or inducing a desired emotion. Typically, these emotions are "negative", such as anger, frustration, sadness, and loneliness, but "positive" emotions such as excitement or pride have also been reported.

  2. Thought regulation. This is closely linked to emotion regulation, as our thoughts and emotions are connected. Individuals may use self-injury to control or quieten unwanted thoughts, such as self-criticism or suicidal ideation.

  3. Self-punishment. While self-punishment appears to serve an emotion regulation purpose, self-injury for this reason is usually tied to feelings or shame or thoughts about oneself being "flawed" or "bad".

Intrapersonal functions

Interpersonal functions have to do with an individual's connection with others, and include three main reasons:

  1. Communicating distress. Sometimes individuals may not know how to explain their distress to others and use self-injury as a way to communicate their feelings. 

  2. Social influence. There may be several motivations underlying self-injury as a way to influence others. An individual may engage in self-injury to keep people away from them, to demonstrate their belonging to a social group, to elicit care, or to encourage a change in behaviour.

  3. Punishment. Sometimes a person may engage in self-injury as a way to punish another person for something they have or have not done. In these instances, the self-injury is typically communicating distress and serving an emotion regulation function as well.