Emotional self-harm refers to negative thoughts that damage someone’s self-esteem and mental health. This can manifest in overly critical self-talk or ruminating on past mistakes.

Although the term “self-harm” is typically associated with physical harm, it can also take the form of emotional and mental harm.

This type of harm may stem from various factors, such as past trauma, negative childhood experiences, and perfectionism. In some cases, it may lead to physical self-injury.

Keep reading to learn more about emotional self-harm, examples, causes, risk factors, treatment, coping strategies, and when to contact a doctor.

A woman looking down at a broken mirror.Share on Pinterest
Iuliia Isaieva/Getty Images

According to licensed psychologist David Tzall, PsyD, emotional self-harm means that people intentionally cause themselves emotional pain, distress, or suffering.

“It revolves around internal emotional turmoil and negative thoughts,” he says. “People engaging in emotional self-harm may not necessarily intend to cause physical harm, but they instead harm their emotional well-being, self-esteem, and mental health.”

Self-injury is a physical type of self-harm. Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) denotes someone’s actions that hurt their body without intending to take their life. Older research from 2014 notes that NSSI is particularly common in individuals who engage in self-criticism and self-directed negative emotions.

“Emotional self-harm can link to or may lead to physical self-injury,” says Tzall. “A person may use physical self-injury as a means to cope with emotional pain and distress.”

The following are examples of emotional self-harm:

  • engaging in constant negative self-talk
  • self-berating or constantly focusing on personal shortcomings
  • purposely isolating from social interactions or avoiding support from friends and family
  • setting impossibly high standards and becoming overly critical when they do not meet these standards
  • holding on to past mistakes
  • feeling undeserving of happiness and self-compassion
  • engaging in behaviors that undermine personal success and happiness

It is important to note that emotional self-harming behaviors can look different for everyone.

According to Tzall, the causes and risk factors listed below may underlie emotional self-harm:

If a person is experiencing emotional self-harm, a mental health professional can provide support and may recommend therapy, medication, or both.

“The first approach to treatment involves psychotherapy, particularly psychodynamic therapy,” says licensed psychologist Marty A. Cooper, PhD, LMHC, NCC. “A therapist can help individuals understand the root of the problem and address it through integrating the coping mechanisms that will work best for them.”

While the causes of emotional self-harm can vary significantly, Cooper notes that for some people, it stems from experiencing invalidation, silencing, or trauma.

“While therapy cannot erase the past, it can help identify the factors that influence present-day thinking and choices,” says Cooper. “This process produces empowerment to seek out individuals or situations that do not recreate this sense of invalidation.”

In certain situations, medication may also be helpful. A doctor or mental health professional will advise individuals on the best options for them.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to coping strategies. However, certain practices can help people manage their thinking patterns and behaviors.

Identify thinking distortions

According to licensed counselor Daniel Sexton CASAC 2, LMHC, a person can work on identifying thinking pattern distortions by trying to identify what is happening in their mind.

For example, a person can imagine arguing with a friend. They may experience distortions such as thinking, “No one loves me,” or “I have no friends.”

“Thinking distortions — like overgeneralization — happen when individuals’ thoughts don’t line up with reality and when they make judgments without having all the information,” Sexton says. “These exaggerated phrases can lead to harmful thought patterns.”

Working on adjusting negative thoughts can lead to healthier thinking patterns.

Engage in soothing activities

According to research, practicing emotional regulation may help people reduce emotionally self-harming thoughts and behaviors.

“This might look like reading a book outside, cooking, watching a TV show, or even doing something simple like drinking a glass of water,” says Sexton.

“It can take time for people to determine what helps them relax, so they may need to try different things to see what works best.”

Build self-confidence

“A person can consider the roles in their life and the weight that they put on them,” says Sexton. “For example, if someone is a son, is being a good son important to them? What about being a good friend?”

Acting in these roles can help a person build self-confidence and self-worth.

“Individuals likely have many different roles in their lives, and it is impossible to be perfect,” he says. “However, when they get in tune with themselves and what roles they value, this can promote healthy thinking.”

“If people use the coping strategies previously mentioned and do not experience relief from emotional self-harm, they may wish to consider seeking help from a mental health professional,” advises Cooper. “This is also true if the strategies work temporarily and the emotional self-harm returns.”

If a person is experiencing suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm, they should seek immediate medical attention.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

When people engage in emotional self-harm, they intentionally cause themselves emotional distress. Examples include constant negative self-talk, isolation from social interactions, and behaviors that undermine happiness.

Treatment may involve psychodynamic therapy. Before this intervention is necessary, it is worth trying coping strategies, such as identifying thinking distortions and building self-confidence.

When coping strategies are not effective and emotional self-harm lingers, it may be time to seek professional help.