Self-harm and Attention Seeking

Right, I’m going to put a trigger warning here, because I feel duty-bound to, even if I’m not even sure whether I agree with it as a concept. Please don’t read this if you are going to be triggered by discussion of self-harm.


Self-harm carries a lot of stigma.

You cannot be diagnosed with ‘self-harm’: it is a symptom of another illness.  Dr The Public At Large likes to label it as ‘a phase’ or ‘weird’ or – and I’ve always thought that this is the worst – ‘attention seeking behaviour’.

Mental illness, and the behaviours it causes, stem from a lot of different places, making it impossible to apply one blanket label to everybody, but what if some people do self-harm for attention?

Is that really such a bad thing?

Is it really a bad thing at all?

The problem I have is that the majority of people view ‘attention seeking behaviour’ as negative, needy and selfish.  I’d argue that we all need attention. Everybody needs a cuddle at the end of a difficult day, and we’ve all got people whom we phone when we need to talk.  When somebody I love listens to me, I feel a hundred times better, and when I’m sad, there’s nothing that works better than reaching out for help, and a shoulder to cry on.

Now imagine, for a moment, that you’re having the worst day of your life, but that it hurts so badly inside that you can’t tell anyone; that you’ve been ignored all your life, so there’s nobody that you can tell; that someone has completely destroyed your trust of everyone, so you’re completely unable to confide, or that you hate every fibre of your being so much that you feel too repulsive to reach out to somebody who would love to make it better.

In any of these scenarios, any of us would reach out for attention, but those of us with good mental health would use our voices, or our tears, and we’d know that there would be somebody to listen to us.  Does it seem so bad that people who have damaged mental health cut or burn in order to communicate? It’s heartrending that anybody should ever feel like this but, as humans, we’re wired to respond to other people’s pain: we want to help when we see that somebody is hurt.  It’s surely instinct, therefore, that drives people to abuse their own body in order to get the attention that they need and deserve.  Seeking attention for physical injury means that you’re soothed without anybody probing into jumbled, misunderstood thoughts and emotions; physical pain is a truly global language, so – although not the answer – it must have some effect as a temporary sticking plaster.

What’s wrong with seeking attention? What’s wrong with communicating your needs in the only way that you know will work?

If you know someone who self-harms, please don’t dismiss them as ‘just doing it for attention’. There’s no ‘just’ about it. If somebody does something to themselves that requires attention, think about why. What is making them go to extreme lengths so that you respond? Nobody deliberately causes themselves physical pain without having a very good reason. Help them to talk to you about what they need to say. Listen. Don’t judge.

If you’re struggling with self-harm, don’t let other people telling you that you’re ‘attention seeking’ stop you from seeking attention. It’s OK to want to tell other people that you’re hurting. It’s OK to reach out to the people you love. It is never OK to feel that your only option is to hurt yourself, because it never is. You are allowed to cry and talk and shout until somebody listens to what you have to say. You deserve to be listened to. You deserve to be free of worry and sadness.

It is OK to seek attention.

It is OK to tell somebody that you’re there and that you need help.

It is not OK to feel guilty because other people don’t understand.

One thought on “Self-harm and Attention Seeking

  1. Self-harm is the only way I know how to admit that I’m hurting. I’m not attention-seeking (been told that I am, and that hurts so much to be so judged and misunderstood), I am merely expressing my pain in the only way I know how. Thanks for writing this and sharing xo


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