15 Behaviors We Don't Always Recognize Are Self-Harm
Article updated on February 17, 2020
Self-harm or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is officially defined as causing intentional damage to tissue on your body. When people talk about “self-harm,” they’re usually referring to self-mutilation behaviors like cutting. But cutting is not the only way people self-harm — in fact, sometimes self-harm doesn’t “look” like self-harm at all.
Mighty contributor Catherine Renton wrote eloquently about this in her piece, “The Behavior I Didn’t Realize Was Actually Self-Harm.” Renton realized the casual sex she engaged in was actually a way she had been harming herself. She wrote,
Self-harm isn’t always about causing physical pain. It’s continually tugging at that thread that will cause you to unravel. Sadly, what can start as fairly innocuous behavior can lead to more serious harm and even attempts at suicide.
Self-harm doesn’t always manifest physically, and self-destructive behavior can crop up in areas of our lives we may not be aware of.
Maybe you put everyone else’s needs above your own to the point of burnout so frequently, it’s a way you are hurting yourself with or without realizing it. Maybe you tend to push people away, and in sabotaging your relationships, you are actually subconsciously self-sabotaging. Or maybe you use outwardly “healthy” behaviors like exercise to extreme excess and end up hurting yourself.
We wanted to know what behaviors people engaged in that they realized were actually self-harm, so we turned to our Mighty community to share their experiences. You can read what they shared with us below.
It’s important to remember not all of the behaviors listed are automatically self-harm. For example, avoiding going to the doctor may be the result of a struggle with anxiety, not self-harm. Often what makes a behavior self-destructive is the harmful thought process behind the behavior.
Here’s what our community shared with us:
Overspending can be simply defined as living beyond your financial means. If you overspend, there is no shame in struggling. Whether you struggle with depression and spending money feels like it “fills” the emptiness, or maybe borderline personality disorder (BPD) or bipolar disorder affect your impulse control, overspending is a common struggle. This kind of behavior can be self-sabotaging and destructive, so if you need help, please reach out to Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
“Spending money. I don’t mean to. Actually when I’m not depressed I’m very frugal. But when my depression kicks in, I always buy things. A lot of it has do with self-image too. I think if I have nice things, I will feel better about myself. Then there is that part of me that just wants to fill that void. This is so harmful because erratic spending makes me feel worse when I realize I ‘wasted’ money. Then I descend into the cycle all over again.” — Philomena R.
“Buying things I really don’t need to fill a void. When I’m buying, I’m happy that moment, but when I run out of money or look at the things I brought that I really don’t need, I feel bad.” — Alicia A.
- 10 Tips for Handling Impulsive Behavior
- Why My Short-Term Solution to Depression Means I Struggle With Money
- The Unexpected Habit My Therapist Connected to My Borderline Personality Disorder
2. Isolating Yourself
Isolation is a common experience for those living with mental illness. Though isolation isn’t always a self-harm behavior, pay attention to your motivations for isolating yourself when you feel those feelings come up, and try to challenge yourself to reach out to a loved one. If you don’t feel like you have supportive people in your life, you can always reach out on The Mighty, by posting a Thought or Question with the hashtag, #CheckInWithMe.
“Actively isolating. I stay home all the time, even when I know it would be good for me to get out and do something. My health issues make me feel like nobody would want to accommodate me if I wanted to go somewhere, so all I ever do is grocery shopping and go home. I’m alone or with my kids all the time.” — Suzy J.
- 18 Texts to Send a Friend Who’s Isolating Themselves
- The Isolation Cycle of Depression and Anxiety
- When Anxiety Tells You Isolation Is the Answer
3. Having More Casual Sex Than Usual
Though hypersexuality is something people (particularly with bipolar disorder) can experience, turning to casual sex more than you usually do may be a sign that it’s time to reach out for help. It’s important to note that not all instances of casual sex are inherently self-destructive — but they can be, so keep checking in with yourself and investigate the reasons behind your actions. If you are struggling and need support right now, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
“Convincing myself that my hypersexuality is actually just me being in control of my own body and embracing who I am when sometimes it’s a negative coping skill and it leaves me empty and lonely and feeling unfulfilled.” — Clarice S.
“I will trade access to my body for someone to just hold me for a few minutes. If/when he hurts me, it’s because I believe I deserve it. “ — Missa D.
- The Behavior I Didn’t Realize Was Actually Self-Harm
- The Symptom of Bipolar Disorder We Don’t Talk About
4. Putting Everyone Else’s Needs Before Your Own
If you struggle with “pouring yourself out” for others to the point of exhaustion consistently, you might relate to the “self-harm” component of helping others at your own expense. This particular form of “self-harm” is so tricky because it looks like “altruistic” or “high-functioning” behavior on the outside. And while someone who perpetually puts others’ needs above their own might truly be an altruistic person, it could also be a self-destructive behavior.
In these cases, learning to establish proper boundaries to protect your mental health is important. As Annie Wright, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), told The Mighty, “There are very few other subjects that I think are as important as knowing what your boundaries are, knowing how to assert your boundaries and taking care of yourself.”
“One destructive behavior people don’t think of as self-harm is putting others needs before your own. An example is friends who want to talk late at night. Even though I need to sleep for work, school and kids in the morning, I will continue to talk to them, because I don’t want them to feel alone. Or I’ll have bills of my own to pay, but my friend’s water is getting shut off, so I give them my own bill money to pay their bills, and I’m left scrambling to get money.” — Esther P.
- What It’s Like to Care Deeply for Everything Except Yourself
- How to Have Boundaries With Someone Who Doesn’t Respect Your Boundaries
- 10 Ways You Can Be Kinder to Yourself With Self-Care
5. Eating Too Much or Too Little
Folks who struggle with eating disorders often struggle with self-harm behaviors as well. Though not all people who self-harm using food automatically have an eating disorder, it’s important to reach out to a medical professional if you you are preoccupied about food, or it is affecting your daily functioning.
“People with eating disorders tend to take out their feelings on themselves,” Meg Burton from the eating disorders advocacy group Project Heal said. “Self-mutilation is really similar to eating disorders in the sense that it is an act of extreme self-hatred.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, please reach out to the NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
“I binge eat. I lose all mindfulness of what I’m eating and will continue to eat until I can’t any longer. Then, I begin self-loathing and hating myself for what I’ve done.” — Rebecca B.
- 12 Hidden ‘Signs’ of Binge Eating Disorder
- I’m ‘Nostalgic’ for the ‘High’ My Eating Disorder Gave Me
6. Allowing Toxic People Into Your Life
We all struggle with making poor decisions in terms of our relationships from time to time. But if allowing toxic or abusive people into your life is a pattern, or you’re plagued with thoughts like, “I deserve this kind of treatment,” it might be indicative of a self-destructive behavior. If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233
“I will allow toxic people back into my life constantly because I feel as though I deserve the way they treat me. I have this notion that I am evil and deserve punishment so I do that by letting toxic people stay in my life.” — Caitie A.
- How to Have Boundaries With Someone Who Doesn’t Respect Your Boundaries
- 11 ‘Harmless’ Comments Partners Say That Can Be Emotionally Abusive
- 21 ‘Signs’ of an Abusive Parent We Can’t Keep Overlooking
7. Putting Yourself in Risky Situations
If you find yourself struggling with the desire to put yourself in “risky” situations at the expense of your well-being or life, please reach out for help. You’re not alone and your life is worth living. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
“Generally risky behavior, such as going out by myself during the night in a bad neighborhood, and placing myself in a position where I feel anxious.” — Chloe L.
- 17 ‘Impulsive’ Things People Don’t Realize You’re Doing Because of Borderline Personality Disorder
- What I Want Someone Struggling With Self-Harm to Know
8. Watching Things to Make Yourself Feel Worse on Purpose
It’s natural for people to match what they watch or listen to to how they are feeling — listening to sad music when you’re sad is a thing for a reason! But if you find that you are using the media you consume as a tool for making yourself feel worse on purpose, we encourage you to change your surroundings and reach out for help if you need it. Check out the resources below for other viewing alternatives.
“Watching emotionally draining TV shows or movies. I’ll intentionally search Google for movies that are depressing or about suicide to make me feel worse than I am already.” — Hannah D.
- 25 Go-To Movies to Watch When You’re Depressed
- 10 Movies About Mental Illness and What They Taught Me
- 20 Relatable Movies for People Who Live With Anxiety
According to The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) like scratching, compulsive skin picking or hair pulling are rarely engaged in to intentionally produce pain or obtain relief from a negative emotional state — as in most cases of self-harm. Though rare, some folks may indeed turn to these behaviors with the intention of self-harming. If you struggle with this particular kind of self-harm, you’re not alone. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.
“I scratch and scratch and scratch. I will scratch my arms raw or I’ll pull my hair. I told my counselor this once and he dismissed it and said that self-harm is only when you draw blood.” — Alysha P.
- 23 Things to Do If You’re Fighting Self-Harm Urges Right Now
- My 12 Go-To Distractions When I’m Fighting the Urge to Self-Harm
10. Avoiding Going to the Doctor
Avoidance can be a common symptom of anxiety, but if you find that you don’t think you’re worthy of taking care of and avoid the doctor as a result, it is probably a good indicator to reach out to a trusted loved one and/or mental health professional. If you are in crisis right now, contact your primary care doctor or the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
“Continually avoiding the doctors when I’ve seriously injured myself and could do more damage. Honestly, I’ve had bad experiences at the doctors and try to avoid it as much as possible.” — Candace C.
“Not doing anything. Giving up. Canceling appointments, not bathing or cleaning, skipping meds because it all seems so pointless. And doing it all in isolation to avoid being a burden.” — Autumn S.
- My Anxiety Made Me Avoid a Lump on My Jawline for 15 Years
- 2 Things Doctors Shouldn’t Say to People Who Self-Harm
11. Sabotaging Important Relationships
Though relational difficulty is a classic symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD), it can affect anyone — regardless of mental illness. When you’re struggling with feelings of wanting to self-harm or self-sabotage, it’s important to reach out to a trusted professional, loved one or The Mighty community. Check in with people who “get it” by posting a Thought or Question on The Mighty.
“I hurt the people I love. I destroy my relationships and my life because I don’t think I deserve anything good. So I just ruin everything.” — Angela W.
“My destructive behavior is pushing people away with my erratic and emotional outbursts. I feel strong feelings, sometime justified and sometimes not. I become triggered and I lash out. I’ve lost friendships and relationships over it. I’ve quit jobs because of it. It’s my own ‘self-harm.’” — Mande M.
“Telling my friends to leave me. I recently realized I do this. I will say ‘crazy’ things in order to push them away. They haven’t left me yet, but I do feel as though our relationship has changed.” — Kat W.
- Why I Self-Sabotage as Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder
- When Anxiety Makes You Hurt People to Push Them Away
12. Excessive Use of Alcohol or Drugs
Turning to substances is a common “numbing” strategy when coping with intense emotions. Whether you are using substances as a form of self-harm intentionally or not, using alcohol or drugs can cause significant bodily harm. If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.
“For me it’s excessive drinking of alcohol. I drink more heavily when I am worse in my depression, because the alcohol gives me a temporary mood improvement and makes it easier to keep my mask of happiness on around those who care about me.” — Liv W.
“I think one of the things I do is self-medicate. Whether it is pot or alcohol. I don’t really see it as self-harm at the time — that is until a few days later when I crash into another depressive episode and realize what I have done.” — Bethany M.
- Why I Won’t Treat My Addictions as Personal Failures
- Words of Wisdom I Found New Meaning In While Recovering From Addiction
13. Eating or Drinking Things You Are Allergic to
Ingesting substances you are allergic/have an intolerance to can be very dangerous. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741741.
“Drinking milk although I’m not supposed to because I’ll get extremely sick.” — Shyian G.
14. Punishing Yourself by Not Dressing for the Weather
Though a seemingly mild form of “self-harm,” purposely subjecting yourself to discomfort due to weather should be taken seriously. Please reach out to a trusted mental health professional or check in with people who “get it” by posting a Thought or Question on The Mighty.
“Sometimes, in the cold, I would force myself to keep from putting on extra layers to keep warm for a time. Telling myself to just give in to the cold. I used it as a punishment. It didn’t hurt, but I really don’t enjoy being cold. Not ‘winter cold,’ anyways. Or, when it’s hot, I don’t take off my extra layers. I feel closed in when I’m really hot. I get claustrophobic in lots of situations, especially with heat, so I use my discomforts as a punishment for myself since I can’t allow myself to harm myself in the same ways I used to. Same idea, just different weather. And at the end of the day, it still isn’t good enough… I’m working on resisting those things, and trying to practice self-care. And sometimes the most I can do is brush my hair and wash my face, but it’s still something.” — Camryn D.
Compulsive exercise is not an official diagnosis, but is present in some who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), compulsive exercise is defined by activity that significantly interferes with one’s life and occurs at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings. An individual struggling with overexercising may also continue exercise despite injuries or medical complications. If you or someone you know is using exercise as a means of self-harm, please reach out to the NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
“Overtraining in the gym. People think because you’re active… that you’re actually doing well.” — Candy J.
“Over-exercising. People tend to think of it as a healthy coping skill, but I abuse it — resulting in overuse injuries and dangerous energy imbalance.” — Nika B.
- Building My Relationship With Working Out While in Eating Disorder Recovery
- A Letter to My Eating Disorder: You Will Not Win
According to Stephen Lewis, P.h.D., cofounder of the nonprofit Self-Injury Outreach & Support (SiOS), it takes time to find a coping mechanism that works well for you — especially because these coping tools are not “one size fits all.” He told The Mighty,
It’s also important, I think, to know that you can’t just sort of sub in one behavior, and then take out another behavior — in this case, taking out the self-injury. Because part of it is finding what works for that person and different things will work differently for different people. Some people can express their emotions and obtain relief by, you know, engaging us into the artistic or creative activity for other people. Maybe it’s exercise for other people, maybe it’s talking to someone.
If you’re struggling with self-harm or self-destructive behavior, you’re not alone. Recovery from self-harming behaviors takes time, so whether you push people away, or struggle with disordered eating behaviors, or engage in “classic” self-harm behavior like cutting — be patient with yourself as you heal.
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