Girls and self-harm

In the news this week: the number of teenage girls who self-harm have almost doubled in the past 20 years•.

Here’s an excerpt from an email I received several years ago, from someone who was struggling:

“…I go to a private school and self-harm is not spoken about enough.  I’ve recently been isolating myself a lot more after I was told I had to wear a cardigan under my blazer because I have scars on my wrist. I also have a friend at another school who got removed from boarding because she self-harms, making her feel more isolated and picked on.

I understand that it’s not good for other people to see it but I spend many hours worrying about people seeing it and that has just made me even more worried. I also got told that I wasn’t allowed to talk to my friends about it, hence why I isolate myself.  Only 3 of my friends know and (in the past) they would ask me if I’m okay and stuff and now that doesn’t happen. I understand that my friends shouldn’t be burdened with my issues but I now feel really alone and isolated.

I have teachers I can talk to but they’re not the same as friends. Schools need to start talking more. There are many girls I know who have issues and aren’t getting help because they are scared to talk about it.”

(rest of original post here)

So what’s going on? Why so many girls; and why now? Social media and pressures of school work have been blamed; and undoubtably they play a big part.

Here’s some other possibilities…

* It’s scary to deal with other people, especially when you’ve been hurt.  Self-harm is a way of dealing with pain on your own – and can bring a sense of control. Like exchanging emotional pain for physical pain instead. Or bringing balm to a part of yourself that you don’t want to acknowledge or cannot face in daily life.

* For many struggling with self harm (SH), these behaviours are not problems but solutions. Not ways of trying to cause pain, but to deal with it. For example, if you’ve been hurt and don’t know how to cope, one way of processing it is to re-enact the pain on yourself.  This can feel like taking control of your trauma, only this time you are in charge of the hurt. If you’re hurt by someone you love, part of you associates pain with love or care; so you’re reenacting the ‘love/pain’ you were taught. In a sense you’re self-medicating with your own body…except that, over time you may need to go further to feel the same relief as you did at first.

* If you’ve been hurt, self-harming can be an unconscious way of trying to hurt the person who hurt you; and getting rid of the ‘bad’ stuff that you (wrongly) feel provoked the pain.  It’s also a way of transferring negative emotions to the physical – which temporarily relieves intense feelings, pressure or anxiety.

* It’s suggested that girls often internalise stress whilst boys (traditionally at least) have been taught to vent it.  So it’s okay for boys to get angry or physical…but girls are often conditioned to keep quiet, be ‘good’ and keep those feelings in. In this way,  girls learn to punish themselves; feeling that it is not ok to have negative feelings, that they deserve to be hurt.

* One theory is that if we experience trauma in childhood, we’re too young to think it through logically or through language.  Instead it is experienced and processed within the body;

“The body speaks of that which cannot be said in words, of secrets, lies, and trust that has been broken (Farber 2000).”

* If I’m really as bad as I think I am, then I need an excuse to look after myself. Self-injury followed by tending to wounds is a way to express self-care and to be self-nurturing, for someone who never learned how to do that in a more direct way. If my physical wounds can heal, then maybe my emotional wounds can heal too. They can also distract from pressures of school or body image that I don’t know how to handle.

* Ironically, self-harm can work not just to kill pain, but to cause it. When people suffer trauma, they often try to cope by pretending it didn’t happen – but then suffer feelings of numbness or deadness and detached from the world and their bodies. SH can be a way of trying to feel alive and connected.

* For some, SH is a cry for help; to make others care, push them away or get them to see that I’m not coping and need support, (especially if they find it hard to verbalise their feelings).


When it comes to self harm, ‘exam pressure’ alone doesn’t explain it. There are deeper issues at the heart level, that also need to be addressed.

For more on this, see my next post or click the ‘self-harm‘ tag. But take comfort – the fact that self-harm is a deeper, weightier problem than ‘exam stress’ or ‘social media’ is also hopeful. It means we’re in the territory of sin, guilt and shame, of mourning, of broken hearts and crushed spirits. In other words it’s the place where Jesus shows up to bless and to heal.

More in the next post..


*In England, based on NHS figures (see link at beginning of article).

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