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Misconceptions about Self Injury

Marcia Boatman, PhD, LPC, CAADC 

She feels angry, rejected and lonely. She tells herself she is unwanted, ugly, and she will always be alone. Her thoughts race with memories of past. She is irritable at school, cannot focus on her work, and she suffers the consequences. The emotional pain quickly intensifies and worsens as people react to her reactions. She misinterprets the emotional cues of her friends and isolates from them because she believes they are rejecting her, and then at home, her angry outbursts over seemingly small issues leads to a huge argument with her parents. She thinks they hate her and she will never be the daughter they want her to be. She believes her life is trash. Sometimes she thinks about suicide but she doesn’t want to die. Emotionally exhausted, she feels powerless to turn down her emotional volume and she escapes to her room. She doesn’t know what to do, and neither do the people around her. Everyone will experience intense negative emotions at some point in their life, but not everyone has the skills, support, and circumstances to manage them. The more her family and friends knows about self-injury, the more empowered they are to help. Part of awareness is knowing the misconceptions. Self-injury in particular is frequently misunderstood.

  1. “Self-injury is attempting suicide:” The difference between self-injury and a suicide attempt is intent. Self-injury is not lethal, meaning it is not destructive enough to end a life. People who desire to end their lives resort to lethal methods, while self-injurers are attempting to alleviate boiling over emotions as a way to cope. Although self-injury is not attempting suicide, people who self-injure are at an increased risk for suicide.
  2. “They just want attention:” If attention was the problem, self-injury would no longer be a problem. Oftentimes the reaction of family members is so overwhelming that it leads to more emotional dysregulation and more self-injury. Self-injury is typically done in secret and scars are hidden. Even if a person self-injures because they fear abandonment or they experienced rejection, it is the inability to regulate the intense emotions they experience that drives the urge to self-injure.
  3. “Self-injury is cutting:” People can self-injure by cutting, head banging, burning, skin picking or any other way that causes physical harm.
  4. “Only teenage girls self-injure:” Self-injury is blind. Male and female children, adolescents, teenagers, and adults of all ages, from various socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, and countries are susceptible to self-injury. It is possible there are extreme differences in certain geographical locations, but self-injury is a global issue.
  5. “Coping that way is crazy:” The word crazy uncaring and invalidating. It should never be used to describe another human being in any capacity. Self-injuring does not mean a person is crazy, it means they need support to learn how to cope with their emotional experiences when they are triggered.

March is Self-Injury Awareness Month. Self-injury is not a mental health diagnosis, but a symptom of mental health disorders such as, borderline personality, major depression, PTSD, eating disorders and more. It can be more prevalent among certain populations due to related traumatic and environmental stressors, but a common factor among people who self-injure is that they struggle to regulate their emotions. Anyone can have misconceptions about self-injury. An important part of helping people is being aware of and suspending your judgments. Helping involves listening, learning, and being willing to shift your perspective as needed. Search our archives for more articles on self injury and learn more about our DBT program and how we can help.


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