Understanding the Paradox of Self-Harm

June 9, 2022 Kim Berkley

The paradox of self-harm can be difficult to understand, even for those of us living inside it. We hurt ourselves to feel better—and no, on the surface, that doesn't make sense. But in the moment, sometimes it feels like the only option we've got.

The Paradox of Self-Harm, Explained

Have you ever taken medicine that tasted gross, that maybe made you dizzy—but ultimately made you better? The paradox of self-harm works a little bit like that. It's not that it doesn't hurt to injure yourself. The hope is that however you feel afterward will be somehow better than however you felt before. The only problem is that, unlike that medicine I mentioned, self-harm doesn't actually help you get better.

The thing about physical pain is that it's easy to understand. Even a toddler learns early on that certain things, like scraping your knee or stubbing your toe, hurt. And when you inflict the injury on yourself, the cause and effect are obvious—you know exactly what hurt you, and why. Most people also know enough basic first aid to know how to make it better.

Psychological pain is different. Sometimes we are aware of the cause, but the solution (which may involve therapy, among other things) may be difficult to understand or undertake. Other times, we may struggle even to discover where the pain is coming from. I used to have days—too many of them—where I thought I was having a good day, only to quite suddenly find myself drowning in dark feelings that seemed to come out of nowhere.

It takes time, practice, and patience, to learn to recognize the early warning signs that such feelings are on their way. It takes even more practice to get good at recognizing the origins of those feelings.

If you've ever overreacted to something you later realized was relatively trivial, you've had a taste of this yourself. Chances are you weren't really that upset about overcooking dinner or your friend forgetting to call you back; there was something much deeper, much less trivial, going on beneath the surface that led you to react as you did.

Self-harm can feel like a shortcut past the long and difficult emotional work of sorting through our tangled feelings. The hurt gives you something tangible to focus on. It may be an outlet for you to vent your feelings or provide a sense of catharsis in a situation you feel otherwise helpless to resolve. It can provide release for overwhelming feelings, or for those struggling to feel anything at all, it may be a welcome reprieve from the monotony of numbness.

The Paradox of Self-Harm, Refuted

The real problem with the paradox of self-harm is how easily our brains trick us into trusting it. We hurt, but then we feel better in some way—and our brains all too quickly latch onto that cause-and-effect relationship without really taking in the bigger picture.

Yes, self-harm can feel like an effective solution at first. You might feel "better"—however you define that—at first. But within weeks, days, sometimes even hours, that sensation fades, and we are left dealing with the same overwhelming situation we started with. Because, of course, self-harm doesn't actually solve anything.

It's like closing your eyes to avoid reality. Sure, you can block the world out for a moment, but when you open your eyes again, there it will still be. Closing your eyes didn't make it go away; it just made you less aware of it for a time.

The full paradox of self-harm is that, in hurting ourselves to feel better, we ultimately wind up more wounded than ever before, not just physically but psychologically, too. It's a vicious cycle, one that's way too easy to fall into, and frustratingly difficult to climb back out of.

But you can overcome it. Yes, it will take time. Yes, it will take practice. And yes, it will try your patience every single day at first. But it will be worth it in the end because you'll finally feel better—for real, this time.

APA Reference
Kim Berkley (2022, June 9). Understanding the Paradox of Self-Harm, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Kim Berkley

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