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7 Subtle Self-Harm Strategies You Might Do

This blog discusses self-harm and suicide, which can be sensitive topics to many readers. Please establish your safety before reading, including your mental, psychological, emotional, and safety.

Self-harm is a topic that's often discussed in hushed tones, if at all. When we talk about this common warning sign for crisis (which often goes hand in hand with passive or active suicidal ideation), many people’s minds immediately jump to the more extreme forms of self-destructive behavior, like cutting.

However, self-harm encompasses a much broader spectrum of actions and behaviors than we might realize. In fact, self-harm can manifest in ways that are subtle, almost invisible, but equally damaging in the long run. In this article, we'll explore five things you might not have recognized as self-harm and delve into the importance of recognizing them to foster self-compassion and healthier habits.

1. Overworking Yourself

Overworking is often seen as a badge of honor in today's society. We glorify hustle culture, applaud long hours, and often put our professional lives ahead of our physical and mental well-being. Yet, overworking is a form of self-harm. Pushing yourself to the limit, neglecting your need for rest and play, and compromising your work-life balance can take a severe toll on your health.

Chronic stress, exhaustion, and burnout are all potential consequences of overworking, and they can be just as destructive as more visible forms of self-harm.

If that sounds like you…

Our sense of urgency and fear often drive us to work harder or longer. If you can address these emotions and urges, you’ll discover that you can finally relax.

Remind yourself that if you take a day off, everything and everyone will be okay. Learn to trust others to take care of themselves. Your most important job is taking care of yourself.

2. Intentionally Skipping Meals

Skipping meals or intentionally depriving yourself of food might not seem like self-harm on the surface. In a world where toxic diet culture and body image issues are prevalent, many people mistakenly believe that restricting their food intake is a sign of discipline or control that should be celebrated.

But control isn’t the same as wellbeing or health. Often this behavior of restriction is paired with emotional turmoil, a feeling of helplessness, or a lack of control in everyday life. It further reinforces violent beliefs about the relationships between how our bodies look and how we deserve to be treated—which hurts us and other people.

Skipping meals can also lead to nutritional deficits, weakened immune systems, and worsen existing mental health issues. No one likes being hangry. It's a subtle but insidious form of self-harm that shouldn't be underestimated.

If that sounds like you…

Humans need to eat to survive. If you want my advice, try an additive instead of a restrictive diet. Prioritize eating more fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and complex carbs over cutting out processed foods or anything you see as “unhealthy.”

My motto to unlearn this unhealthy habit is "something is better than nothing." The stress of dieting often negates any benefits. So, reconnect with your body by eating when you feel hungry.

3. Re-engaging in Destructive Relationships

Consistently going back to a toxic or destructive relationship, whether it's with a partner, friend, or family member, can be a form of self-harm.

Let’s be clear here. Other people hurting you is never your fault. You are not to blame for what happened to you, ever. And it is your responsibility to recognize your harmful patterns.

Continually putting yourself in situations where you know you will be subjected to emotional, psychological, or even physical abuse is a form of self-harm.

Sometimes, we do this because we feel we deserve it. Other times, we're afraid of ending or distancing ourselves from these relationships. Whatever the reason, it can be incredibly harmful to us.

The scars from such relationships often linger long after they've ended and can negatively impact your self-esteem and mental health.

Please note: I am not talking about domestic violence situations where a person faces a very real threat of violence for leaving. In these situations, tact, planning, and outside support are essential to safely leave dangerous situations. If you need help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for support.

If that sounds like you…

No one deserves to be treated badly. There’s nothing wrong with you, and it’s not your fault if you engage in a destructive relationship.

I repeat, it’s not your fault—and it’s your responsibility to set your boundaries and create change in your life. You are the only person who can rescue you. Recognize that letting other people hurt you again and again is a way of hurting yourself, and you are the one who needs to break the cycle of self-harm.

4. Abusive Self-Talk

Abusive self-talk is a subtle but highly damaging form of self-harm. This includes constantly belittling yourself, using self-deprecating humor, or telling yourself mean things, like you're "stupid" or "worthless.”

These negative words and thoughts erode your self-esteem and sense of self-worth over time. The more you say and think it, the more your brain believes it to be true. It’s like slowly digging a hole. Each thought shovels a bit more dirt so that you’re going deeper and deeper into the belief.

The only way to get out of that hole is to slowly put more dirt back in, one handful at a time—by addressing your abusive self-talk.

If that sounds like you…

Know that it is possible to rewire your brain and build your self-esteem. Start by replacing deprecating jokes with self-aggrandizing ones. This looks like moving from “I’m so clumsy” to “Wow, I’m a picture of beauty and grace” when you trip or knock something over.

Even if you’re being sarcastic, your brain hears you and embeds that belief.

Whenever you notice your abusive self-talk, you can also ask yourself, is this how I would speak to my best friend? What would I say instead?

5. Neglecting Self-Care

Neglecting self-care is another subtle yet insidious form of self-harm that often slips under the radar. It's the act of denying yourself the basic necessities for a healthy and balanced life.

In a world filled with demands and responsibilities, we sometimes prioritize everything and everyone else while neglecting our own well-being.

This neglect can manifest in various ways, from ignoring the importance of sufficient sleep to allowing stress to accumulate unchecked. Over time, these seemingly small acts of self-neglect can be as destructive as any other form of self-harm, taking a toll on your mental and physical health.

If that sounds like you…

Know that self-care isn’t extra—it’s essential. And it’s not selfish. It’s self-compassion. If we want to care for others, we must start by caring for ourselves.

There’s no one way to practice self-care, and change happens slowly in small ways. You can start by setting boundaries, practicing mindfulness, and seeking support when you need it. We also offer some free and affordable self-care resources you can take advantage of.

6. Feeding Addiction

Turning to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with emotional pain or stress is a widespread and often hidden form of self-harm.

There’s nothing wrong with a temporary escape from life's difficulties—and there’s nothing wrong with suffering from substance use issues. Still, we need to recognize that our temporary escapes often spiral into full-blown addictions.

Sometimes, our addictions are less obvious. We might also feed a social media, video game, or TV binging addiction.

No matter the vice, falling into the habit of feeding our addictions can create a self-destructive cycle that ensnares us, making it challenging to find a way out.

We often become stuck in a reenactment, feeling trapped and helpless to change. Identifying these habits for what they are—self-harm—is a crucial step toward healing and change.

If that sounds like you... Know that you are capable of regaining control over your life and wellbeing. You also need support from friends—not because there’s something wrong with you but because all human beings need support from other humans. It’s in our nature.

Despite what we’ve been told, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It’s an act of self-compassion and a sign of strength.

7. Isolating

Humans are social creatures. We know this. And yet, for many people with trauma, social interaction is stressful. Developmentally, many of us learned that people = danger. And what we know about resilience tells us that connections and relationships are incredibly important for our wellbeing.

Intentionally withdrawing from social interactions, even when you yearn for human connection, is another form of self-harm that often goes unnoticed. Self-isolation often intensifies feelings of loneliness, abandonment, anxiety, and depression.

People who are prone to isolating often lie to themselves, believing that they can’t reach out for support. In reality, there are often more supports than you realize—people just don’t know that you’re hurting.

If that sounds like you... Remind yourself that reaching out for connection might feel scary, but it’s the best way to heal. Explore how isolating impacts your life. And, ask for help. Think about the people you care about. Now, consider the fact that they care about you, too.

Final Thoughts: Change is Possible

If you can relate to any of these subtle forms of self-harm, then you might need a mindful minute to reflect on your life and your well-being.

As you do that, I encourage you to use a trauma informed approach. You are not wrong or bad. You have had hurtful things happen to you, and it makes sense that you respond in this way now.

Know that you are capable of creating a life where you care for yourself and heal. And that involves the constant choice to not harm yourself.

If you want to change, you need to recognize the impact that these behaviors have on you. Then, you need to commit to change.

When we turn to our unhealthy coping mechanisms, it’s best to have a safety plan or self-care plan in place already. I encourage you to complete one now—or update it if you already have one. What other subtle forms of self-harm have you engaged in? How are you healing from it? Let’s talk. Share your story below.

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