Understanding Nonsuicidal Self-Injury (NSSI)

April 16, 2020 Kim Berkley

It's understandable to assume that people who self-harm do so because they want to end their own lives. This is understandable but wrong. While suicide attempts do often involve an act of potentially-lethal self-injury, those of us who struggle with nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) are not looking to die. If anything, what we are really trying to do is survive.

Reasons for Nonsuicidal Self-Injury

There are many reasons why people self-harm. Ultimately, though, these usually boil down to one of two fundamental drives: a need for relief from overwhelming emotions, or a craving to feel something—anything—other than numbness.

Some people seem to feel pleasure in the pain—not necessarily sexual pleasure, but rather a sort of brief euphoria not unlike a runner's high. Others simply don't know any other way to release the more difficult emotions they are feeling (and perhaps trying to suppress). Others still say it makes them feel alive when nothing else seems to make them feel much of anything at all.

In my case, I don't remember how it began, but I remember how it felt. For me, there was no euphoria, but there was a sense of closure to it. It was both a punishment I had tricked myself into thinking I deserved and a reward for making it through another difficult day. Yes, it hurt—but the pain was followed quickly by satisfaction, a relief not unlike the feeling of crossing a major task off of your to-do list.

The Vicious Cycle of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury Urges

The problem is, the supposed benefits a person receives from self-harming never last. Often, as was the case for me, they are quickly followed by more negative feelings and experiences. I always felt incredibly guilty after I hurt myself, pathetically ungrateful for the people who loved me and the life I knew I was lucky to have.

Those negative feelings triggered new self-harm urges—on top of whatever triggers existed in the first place—and so the vicious cycle began.

It can be an incredibly difficult cycle to break. That's the main thing I think people who don't struggle with NSSI need to understand, for the sake of people who do: you can't just talk someone out of self-injury with common sense. The motivations people find to stop self-harming are as varied as the triggers that caused them to start, and not all of them make sense to an outside perspective.

What that motivation is, however, isn't really important. All that matters is finding it—and never letting it go. For me, it was a promise I made to myself one night when I knew I had reached a crossroads. If I turned right, the going would get tougher for a while, but I would get better. If I stuck to the path on the left, I knew I was headed for a downward spiral I might not escape. I promised myself that, whichever way I turned that night, I would stick to that path and never turn back, no matter what.

Thankfully, I turned right.

APA Reference
Kim Berkley (2020, April 16). Understanding Nonsuicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Kim Berkley

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