Women and Self Harm

Copyright, Threshold Women’s Mental Health Initiative

Self Harm/Self Injury — What is it?

The term self harm is generally used to describe all aspects of self harm, self injury and attempted suicide.

Self injury is a specific form of self harm where people inflict wounds upon themselves. The most common forms of self injury are cutting and burning, but there are many other ways of inflicting bodily damage.

The National Self Harm Network states:

Self-injury is not attempted suicide, they have an intimate relationship but are different. Self injury often represents the prevention of a suicidal period and is one way of averting suicide. Self-injury may actually be a survival strategy and is frequently the least possible amount of damage and represents extreme self-restraint. A diminishing sense of worth may culminate in suicide as its ultimate expression. People who self-injure are statistically at a greater risk of going on to commit suicide.

Why women?

Both women and men self-injure, but young women far outnumber men in terms of self-injury. There are many possible reasons for this, associated with the different experiences, roles and perceptions applied to women and men in society. What is clear from talking to women who self injure is that it is linked with (chronically) low self-esteem.

The majority of women who self-harm say the self harming immediately follows feelings of either emotional pain (sadness, grief, hopelessness and desperation), self-hatred (shame, guilt, dirtiness) or anger (frustration, powerlessness). Self-injury can be a way of achieving a sense of power and control over these feelings. Women who self-harm say that it is easier to cope with the physical pain than their emotional pain.

57% of women who self harm said that it provided relief from their feelings (findings of research with 76 women by Lois Arnold, Bristol Crisis Service for Women). Self-injury is often a way of dealing with the pain of past abuse — physical scars can be a symbol of hidden pain. So, self-injury is a way of expressing hurt — how else do you say ‘inside I feel my soul is dying’? It is a physical manifestation of extreme distress.

As women we are more used to responding to the needs of others rather than our own. We may feel ashamed and punish ourselves for our own feelings of need.

Often young girls grow up feeling responsible for the violence and abuse they receive. This can be a child’s way of remaining powerful — if you think it’s your fault then you remain powerful in the face of abuse, if you think it’s your abuser’s fault you lose any sense of power.

As women we often hate our bodies. Self-injury may be a way of controlling and punishing one’s body while at the same time being an act of defiance, an assertion of the right to do as we please with our own body.

What will help me?

  • Self-injury can seem difficult to overcome. Yet it is possible to stop hurting yourself, as you gradually learn to understand, and deal with your situation and feelings.
  • Somewhere to go to feel safe and supported when things get difficult. What women who self-injure say they need is for others to accept their self-harm and to see “the person behind the scars” who is in pain.
  • An understanding of what is underlying your impulse to self-harm and self-injure. A counsellor or therapist will help you talk about your self-injury and what lies behind it. As you gradually uncover and resolve the roots of your distress, you can learn other coping strategies.
  • Support groups can be valuable in providing a place for you to explore your self-injury with support from others who understand your experience from the inside.
  • Kindness, support and acceptance from friends, partners and relatives. This also needs to come from Accident and Emergency Departments and other staff who are willing to try and understand your distress.

How Can I Help Myself?

  • Find other ways to vent your anger and relieve tension: Slam doors, throw pillows, exercise…
  • Try to share the pain with someone you trust, a friend or counsellor. Ask someone to visit you until the desire to self-injure passes. Reach out to someone rather than the razor blades.
  • Tell yourself ‘I am safe’, ‘I am loveable’, ‘I am not alone’, ‘I will treat myself kindly.’
  • Draw on your body with markers or paint instead of cutting yourself.
  • Make use of phone help-lines.
  • Keep busy. Try to distract yourself.
  • Hold something that feels comforting.
  • Meditate or use other stress reduction techniques as a way to calm yourself, e.g. relaxation courses, alternative therapies.

Useful Contacts

Bristol Crisis Service For Women

0117 925 1119 (Helpline, Fri & Sat 9pm-12.30am)
0117 927 9600 (Office)

Charity responding to needs of women in emotional distress with a particular focus on self-injury. Offer a helpline and also support self-help groups, offer training and publish literature.

National Self Harm Network

PO Box 16190, London, NW1 3WW

Survivor-led organisation committed to campaigning for the rights and understanding of people who self-injure.


0345 90 90 90

The Samaritans offer 24 hours a day crisis line.



Self-Harm Overcome by Understanding and Tolerance

C/o PO Box 654
Bristol BS99 1XH


Women Making Waves About Abuse

C/o 82 Colston Street

Penfriend Network


Survivors of Abuse and Self-Harming

20 Lackmore Road

Reading List

The Self-Harm Help Book

by Lois Arnold and Anne Magill

A book for people who self-harm.

What’s the Harm

A book for young people who self harm.

Both the above books available from:

Green Leaf Bookshop
82 Colston Street

Tel: 0117 921 1369

Vicious Circles

by Dianne Harrison

An exploration of women and self harm in society. Available from Good Practices in Mental Health, 380-384 Harrow Road, London.

The Hurt Yourself Less Workbook

A workbook written by people who self injure for people who self-injure. It aims to help you understand it better and to be kinder to yourself. Available from National Self-Harm Network PO Box 16190 London, NW1 3WW

About this factsheet

Threshold’s National InfoLine for Women and Mental Health is open from 2pm until 5pm from Monday to Thursday. We welcome all calls concerning women’s mental health or emotional distress.

This factsheet was last revised in July 1999. Comments and feedback are welcome.

Threshold Women’s Mental Health Initiative
14 St Georges Place

Fax: 01273 626444

Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and reliability of information in these factsheets they are not intended to be relied upon as an authoritative statement of the law. Threshold cannot accept liability for errors or omissions.


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