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University Counseling Center

Self-Injury

Self-Injury is immediate physical harm to oneself and doesn’t include socially sanctioned behavior (or sexual masochism).

Examples include…

cutting, burning, needle poking, skin scratching, pulling out hairs, breaking bones, head banging, and ripping off scabs – all without suicidal intent. Sometimes, dangerous or compulsive behaviors can be a type of self-mutilation – overeating to the point of obesity, for example, or provoking physical fights with others.

If you cause physical harm to your body…

in order to deal with overwhelming feelings, know that you have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s likely that you’re keeping yourself alive and maintaining psychological integrity with the only tool you have right now. It’s a crude and ultimately self-destructive tool, but it works; you get relief from the overwhelming pain/fear/anxiety in your life. The prospect of giving it up may be unthinkable, which makes sense; you may not realize that self-harm isn’t the only or even best coping method around.

For many people who self-injure, though, there comes a breakthrough moment when they realize that change is possible, that they can escape, that things can be different. They begin to believe that other tools do exist and begin figuring out which of these non-self-destructive ways of coping work for them. This site exists to help you come closer to that moment. –Deb Martinson

For family members and friends…

self-mutilation is often very difficult to understand. Self-injury is a coping mechanism used to release or manage overwhelming emotional pain – usually feelings of shame, anger, sadness, and abandonment. Self-mutilation may release the body’s own opiates, known as beta-endorphins. These chemicals lead to a general feeling of well-being.

An estimated 1% of Americans practice self-harming behaviors. Self-injury may be planned in advance or done impulsively. It may be performed intentionally or unconsciously – almost as if the person is in a haze and doesn’t realize what they’re doing. A person who mutilates themselves may or may not feel pain while they’re doing it. Some people hide their self-mutilation, while others are more open about the results of their self-injury – perhaps because it’s a way to communicate their pain or ask for help.

Reasons for self-mutilation vary tremendously…

and include:

  • to feel something or to feel alive (instead of empty, numb, or dead)
  • to feel more numb
  • to express anger at others
  • to punish oneself or express self-loathing (probably more frequent among individuals who have been abused)
  • to somehow prove that one is not as “bad” as one thinks
  • to relieve stress or anxiety
  • to feel in control of one’s pain
  • to feel “real” (instead of detached, depersonalized, or dissociated)
  • to seek relief from emotional pain, frustration, and other negative feelings by focusing on physical pain
  • to communicate emotional pain to others and ask for help

Frequently, people are aware of their own reasons for self-injury, but an intellectual understanding doesn’t make it easier to stop. Self-mutilation may become a coping habit, and the urge to do it can be very powerful.

Please know that…

if you engage in self-harming behaviors, it would be beneficial to talk to a professional about it. Call the University Counseling Center at or (585) 275-3113. You do not have to be alone in your struggles.

Compiled by Dagmar Kaufmann, M.A., for the University Counseling Center
Sources for this site include the book Stop Walking On Eggshells by Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger