Can Self-Harm Be Emotional?

June 11, 2020 Kim Berkley

When talking about self-injury, often we are describing the act of causing oneself physical harm or pain. But can self-harm be emotional, too?

But I would argue that you don't need to physically self-harm in order to hurt yourself—nor are physical wounds the only kind that require healing.

Can Self-Harm Be Emotional as Well as Physical?

Self-harm can be an intensely emotional experience for many people. Often, people who self-injure, hurt themselves as a way to relieve themselves of a heavy, emotional burden—sorrow, perhaps, or one of its dark cousins like anger or guilt. Strong emotions may follow immediately after the act itself—a sense of peace, relief, or even elation.

Other emotions, like shame or fear of being found out, may follow soon after—or much later. Even people who hurt themselves as a way to break through a wall of numbness may feel something briefly—just enough to trigger cravings for more.

But can self-harm be purely emotional? That is, is self-harm "real" without the physical scars to prove it?

Can Self-Harm Be Emotional—Without a Physical Component?

Speaking on a purely technical level, no, self-harm can't be purely emotional. Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), as a clinically diagnosed disorder, requires "deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue without suicidal intent and for purposes not socially sanctioned."1 However, it is important to remember that clinical diagnoses are merely labels used to help medical professionals provide appropriate treatment and support, and to help patients give a name to the things they are experiencing.

Verbal abuse still "counts" as abuse in the world of domestic violence. Likewise, yes, self-harm can be an emotional, rather than a physical, experience. Words do hurt us, despite what certain aphorisms may tell us, and few people can wound you as deeply or destructively as you can wound yourself. After all, who knows your own fears and weaknesses—and how to use them against you better than you do?

Wounds don't have to break the skin to leave scars. Pain is pain, and regardless of how you may be hurting yourself, the fact remains that you are causing yourself harm. It is also true, however, that you don't have to keep doing so—there are other, better options for coping with the things you're thinking and feeling.

Healing from Emotional Self-Harm

As with physical acts of self-injury, healing from emotional self-harm can be a difficult and complicated process. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of blaming yourself for everything and giving yourself credit for nothing—and shaming yourself for feeling unable to do anything about it. I know, I've been there. In fact, I still find myself struggling sometimes not to fall into old thought patterns of never feeling "good enough" or "strong enough" to be the person I want to be. But the good news is that with help—and a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy—I'm getting a little better at it every day.

The even better news is this: you can, too.

Do you emotionally self-harm? Have you found any ways to stop these thoughts in their tracks, or replace them with more positive, less harmful alternatives? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Zetterqvist, M., "The 'DSM-5' Diagnosis of Nonsuicidal Self-iIjury: A Review of the Empirical Literature." Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 2015.

APA Reference
Kim Berkley (2020, June 11). Can Self-Harm Be Emotional?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 24 from

Author: Kim Berkley

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June, 18 2020 at 3:25 am

This article was a real eye-opener for me. Thank you!
Yes, I often get myself into the emotional loop of blaming myself for everything and giving myself credit for nothing—and shaming myself for feeling unable to do anything about it.
This may sound cliche' but, I've found allowing myself some Grace, helps counteract some of the negative thoughts.
The times when I feel my failures are particularly large, and without doubt,- my fault , my spiritual leadership is there to remind me, that we all have faults, that failure is the only way to learn, and quite honestly, what defines us as human beings.
Practicing mindfulness, is slowly helping me recognize when my thought-patterns are "running down the rabbit-hole", or I'm being to severe on myself. This (along with some anxiety medication), gives me the chance- finally, to re-direct my focus onto something positive.
Gratitude is a great motivator for moving my thoughts in a more positive direction. Forgiving myself, is another, although it was a hard lesson to learn.
Seeing the humanity of others, and forgiving them, is another lesson that I needed to learn, unfortunately - by making enough serious blunders to lose the "I can handle anything" attitude, which is a big let-down when you find out that you really can't.
Letting go of my anxiety was a good start, - letting go of the past wrongs, mistakes, miss-understandings, or failures of the people I look up too, and remembering that they are human too, was the another lesson I had to learn. The results of that hard lesson, changed my perception, mood, and thought processes in a more positive and productive direction.
I know this may sound like I'm "Just saying it", but I really feel like I'm finally beginning to heal.
Life is looking much better.
Thanks again, for this great article.

June, 24 2020 at 3:43 pm

Hi Dave,
Thank you so much for your comment! I'm so glad you found this post helpful. Spirituality can indeed be a powerful tool for giving us hope and helping us find a way forward through self-doubt and negative thinking. It can be so difficult to catch negative thoughts in their tracks at first--it takes practice to get really good at it, and I'm happy to hear you're practicing regularly.
Keep it up, and hold onto that hope. There is so much to look forward to. :)
Please feel free to share this post with anyone else who might find it helpful. And if you ever need more resources or information regarding self-harm recovery, you can also visit this page:

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