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Why does self harm make me feel good even though I know it’s bad for me?

Jenny Flannagan photo Jenny Flannagan · 02 Feb, 2021

Why does self-harm make me feel good even though I know it’s bad for me?

Heidi, 14

Hi Heidi,

There are a lot of things in life that make us feel good for a moment even though we can see that in the big picture they’re bad for us. We turn to a lot of those things - self-harm, binge eating, alcohol, drugs, other destructive behaviour - because of what we are feeling. Something about life is painful, difficult, maybe even unbearable. We might know why that is or we might not really understand it. But we do these things because for a moment they make us feel different, for a moment they make us feel better.

It can be really hard for people to understand how physically hurting yourself could make you feel better. But a lot of people say that it does. It might be feeling of relief, a feeling that emotional pain has just become physical pain and that’s easier to deal with, it might be that it makes you feel more alive. But there are a few big problems with relying on a behaviour like self-harm to feel ok.

The first is that it doesn’t last. The feeling is often very brief, and may last less and less time the longer you rely on it. Which means that you feel the need to do it more and more which can be really dangerous.

The second is that usually after we self-harm we get a rush of negative feelings that follow after whatever positive feeling was there. These often take the thought of negative emotions like guilt, shame, anger, disappointment. We want to feel better and then before long we end up feeling worse.
Maybe the most obvi

ous problems is that the behaviour is really dangerous and it can be easily lead to more serious problems with our health. It’s easy to hurt ourselves more than we meant to, or for wounds to get infected.

But I think maybe the biggest problem is that in the big picture it doesn’t help. Whatever the bigger story, whatever the reasons are that life feels painful or difficult (and they might be to do with things in the past, or things in the present, or both) - they don’t get solved by self-harm. And so we have to keep doing it as we keep trying to escape the bad feelings, and it never works for long enough.

Moving away from self-harm is a challenging journey because it means being willing to let go of this behaviour we’ve come to rely on to feel ok. But it’s really worth it. It involves paying attention to what we’re finding so difficult to cope with, how we can find genuine support in those struggles, and then being willing try out alternative behaviours which we can turn to when we’re struggling.

We talk about a lot of questions like this in alumina, which is a free online support program for 14-19 year olds struggling with self-harm. You can find out more here.

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