The Low Self-Esteem and Self-Harm Connection

April 11, 2018 Sam Woolfe

Low self-esteem and self-harm create a self-perpetuating cycle of painful emotions. Learn why self-harm can result from low self-esteem and what positive coping mechanisms you could adopt to stop the cycle at HealthyPlace. Take a look.

There's a connection between low self-esteem and self-harm as having low self-esteem can sometimes lead to repetitive, destructive habits1 – including self-harming behavior. It’s important to be aware of why having a warped and negative opinion of yourself can lead to self-harm, as well as take note of the positive coping mechanisms you can adopt when times get tough.

Why Can Low Self-Esteem Cause Self-Harm?

Self-harm seems to temporarily relieve painful feelings. When you intensely dislike yourself, this is a painful feeling. This is also a feeling that you cannot escape since you are always in your own company. At least if you hate another person, you can avoid him – although, like with low self-esteem, it is healthier to directly address the hatred rather than engage in avoidance strategies.

Low self-esteem is a symptom of depression and can be linked to many other painful feelings associated with the condition2, including anger, hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, and persistent sadness. Self-harm is a way that some people try to find relief from these painful feelings. Cutting, burning, or hitting oneself – as well as excessively exercising – can be employed as methods for releasing tension. The physical pain – and endorphins that follow ­­– replace the emotional pain; but only, of course, temporarily. Abusing drugs and alcohol fail as healthy, long-term coping mechanisms for the same reason.

Self-harming behavior allows an individual to gain a sense of control over her life when she otherwise feels completely powerless (Why I Self-Harm: Why People Self-Injure). This desire for control is understandable and desirable, but the action involved is emotionally unhealthy and physically dangerous. Additionally, living with self-harm scars can be extremely difficult to come to terms with.

Low Self-Esteem and Using Self-Harm as Punishment

People who struggle with low self-esteem may also resort to self-harm as a form of punishment3. Low self-esteem is often characterized by an overly harsh and disparaging attitude towards oneself. When you view yourself with derision and loathing, as a worthless and abjectly horrible person, you may seek to treat yourself in a punitive fashion. Self-harm can result from the feeling that you deserve severe punishment, even though what you really deserve is relief from your suffering.

When you view yourself less harshly, with understanding and forgiveness, self-harm starts to appear as a particularly cruel form of treatment. Building self-esteem takes time, however, and so maintaining positive coping mechanisms during this process is paramount.

Positive Coping Mechanisms Reduce Self-Harm and Build Self-Esteem

When you’re feeling particularly frustrated and angry with yourself, there are healthy ways to overcome or manage these feelings. Here are a couple of things that you can try.

Exercise, but don’t overdo it. Physical activity is a great way to release tension and endorphins4, and for this reason, it can end up becoming something you’re inclined to do again and again. There are all sorts of options available when it comes to exercise. If there’s a particular sport you love, then try to fit it into your weekly schedule. Or you could try a form of exercise you’ve never tried before, such as yoga, or – if you have a really busy schedule – you could do exercises involving short bursts of physical activity, like running, for example.

Treat yourself, but don’t overindulge. Instead of punishing yourself when your self-esteem is low, do something nice for yourself. Making this response a habit will help you to see that you do have value; after all, you have the capacity – and the deep-seated desire – to enjoy life like everyone else. Treating yourself could involve eating your favorite food, buying something you’ve always wanted, sleeping in, watching your favorite series or movie, or taking a holiday. However, be careful about overindulging – overeating, for instance, can be a form of self-harm.

There is a connection between low self-esteem and self-harm. Understanding this link and being disciplined with positive habits is how you can avoid the urge to self-harm and build healthy self-esteem at the same time.


1,3 The truth about self-harm. Retrieved April 18, 2018, from Mental Health Foundation.

2 Building Self Esteem. Retrieved April 18, 2018, from Counselling North London.

4 Stibich, M. Exercise and Improving Your Mood (2018, February 2018). Retrieved April 18, 2018, from Verywell Mind.

APA Reference
Woolfe, S. (2018, April 11). The Low Self-Esteem and Self-Harm Connection, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 22 from

Author: Sam Woolfe

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