The mystery of self-harm


It’s the question on many people’s lips: distraught parents, confused friends, new counsellors and those who struggle. It just doesn’t seem to make sense – most of us try to avoid pain – so why would anyone deliberately cause themselves an injury? But people do. People do it day after day.

You don’t have to be in a support-role for long before you come across it – self-harm is a phenomenon we meet in teens and adults alike. And in recent years the statistics suggest it has been on the rise. But what lies behind the cuts, the bruises, the hair-pulling, the overdoses and more?

Maybe the first thing is to tease out what it’s not. It’s not attention-seeking: most people keep their self-harming secret for months, if not years. Nor is it the same as attempted-suicide: that aims to end life – self-harm is a coping strategy that enables people to keep going.

What it is, is a physical way of bringing temporary relief to deep emotional pain. And there are four main ways in which it works:

Punishment: Sometimes people feel guilty. Sometimes people feel shame. It may be they have committed some terrible act in the past. More likely, a terrible act has been inflicted upon them. But, either way, they feel responsible for an ill. Punishing themselves can bring about a moment of peace. As pain is inflicted it can feel as if justice has been done and the feelings of guilt can subside.

Cleansing: Sometimes life feels like a pressure-cooker. Negative emotions swirl round to the point people feel they may explode. There doesn’t seem to be any release. There doesn’t seem to be a way out. So, in a deeply symbolic act, some people put a hole in their body and, as the blood flows, so the negative feelings seep away.

Control: Sometimes life feels out of control – every moment seems to be taken up with doing someone else’s bidding. Sometimes life is marred by terrible abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault – times of desperation as someone else seems to have complete control over your body. No-one likes to feel completely out of control. Self-harm can be an act of reclamation. “I may not be able to control much – but I will control what happens to this little patch of skin.”

Sensation: Sometimes life feels numb. So many painful memories are suppressed, nothing makes sense and that “deadness” inside is almost intolerable. People don’t enjoy pain, but sometimes they self-injure just so they can feel something, just so they know they are really alive.


Listen to Helen’s seminar in full and the rest of the audio from our 2015 conferences

Self-harm is a desperate place to be. But there is hope – there is gospel-hope – there are words of liberation that we can begin to speak into people’s lives to help them move from mystery to change. There is:

Forgiveness: At the cross we find a substitute who has taken our place. His death provides something that no human pain can muster – complete and lasting forgiveness. There are no exceptions, there is no reluctance on his part, there is freedom from the past. Freedom to stop punishing ourselves and to start relying on the sacrifice that works. (Ephesians 1:7)

Righteousness: At the cross we find a Saviour who has done all the bleeding that needs to be done. As he takes on our sins, we take on his perfection. We become right with God – there’s no sin that hasn’t been dealt with left to come out. (1 Peter 2:24)

Leadership: At the cross we find a King who is worthy of following. Only he can restore our relationship with God, only he can conquer death, only he can bring us to eternal life. His rule is good – in him we find the invitation to stop fighting alone and start following him. (Hebrews 12:2)

Fullness: At the cross we find a shepherd who is leading us towards true fulfilment. A relationship with him brings more meaning that anything else – and with every day our understanding of his character and love can deepen. (John 10:10)

They are transformational truths, paths of liberation, places where the mysteries and the “why?” questions of self-harm can be met with something of meaning. And when we share them in love, lives can begin to change…