We can be our own worst critics, but when negative self-talk and self-punishment become your dominant inner dialogue, you may be experiencing emotional self-harm. It’s natural to be hard on yourself from time to time. Wanting to meet certain expectations can help you reach your goals. It’s OK to hold yourself accountable. When your inner dialogue becomes critical of yourself all the time, or you excessively shame yourself over minor bumps in the road, you may be putting yourself through emotional self-harm.

Self-harm is a term used to describe behaviours that cause intentional self-injury. Emotional self-harm occurs when you use your thoughts and behaviours to cause an emotional distress response. Emotional self-harm involves intentional emotional distress. It can occur in the form of physical actions, like substance abuse, but it isn’t the same as physical self-harm. Physical self-harm is any deliberate physical injury to yourself that doesn’t involve the intention of dying. It’s often used as a form of external release for psychological distress. Emotional self-harm can mean something different for everyone. In general, it includes: 

  • staying in abusive situations
  • substance misuse
  • social withdrawal
  • unprotected sexual behaviours
  • dangerous driving
  • illegal activities
  • fighting

These experiences impact the way that we see our self-worth, our self-talk, and our self-esteems.

Negative self-talk
Negative self-talk as emotional self-harm is more than just a passing internal comment when you’ve made an error. Negative self-talk becomes emotional self-harm when it’s used to discipline yourself for perceived flaws or mistakes and may include “yelling at yourself in anger, calling yourself names (like loser or worthless), and regular ridiculing.

Self-punishment doesn’t have to come only in the form of negative talk. It can also include restricting your personal needs, like not allowing yourself sleep or food until a certain condition is met.

Cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions, also known as cognitive errors, are thought patterns that create a distorted reality about how you see yourself and how you believe others see you. Many types of cognitive distortions exist, including:

  • jumping to conclusions
  • catastrophizing
  • comparison
  • black-and-white thinking
  • disqualifying the positive
  • emotional reasoning
  • externalizing self-worth
  • making assumptions
  • labelling
  • magnification
  • mind reading
  • minimization
  • overgeneralization
  • perfectionism
  • selective abstraction
  • “should” statements

What causes emotional self-harm?
There’s no singular reason why you might engage in emotional self-harm. It can come from skewed perspectives on self-worth and also from the absence of positive skills for processing emotions. Factors that may contribute include: trauma, childhood neglect, bullying, low self-esteem, witnessing emotional self-harm in a caregiver, insecure attachment style or mental health disorders You don’t have to live with emotional self-harm. Small steps can help you change your inner dialogue.

Practicing self-compassion
Self-compassion is the opposite of emotional self-harm. It’s the practice of self-forgiveness and acceptance, and showing yourself the same compassion you would a loved one. When you feel badly about yourself, take a moment to think about how you would feel toward a friend if they were in your shoes. Would you berate them for being stupid and worthless? Probably not.

Encouraging accomplishment
Spending time doing things you’re good at can help you feel valuable and effective, this can mean anything from hobbies, like drawing, to mundane everyday tasks like organization. You can also achieve the same sense of accomplishment by participating in meaningful activities like volunteer work.

Being aware of emotional self-harm
Changing emotional self-harm starts by being able to recognize it. Try “RAIN:”

  • Recognize you’re feeling something.
  • Allow yourself to experience it.
  • Investigate where the feeling is in your body.
  • Nurture yourself in some way, like pressing your hand over your heart.

Causing yourself intentional emotional distress is emotional self-harm. It can come in the form of harmful behaviours, self-criticism and skewed self-perception. However, you can change emotional self-harm behaviours by identify underlying causes, recognize unhelpful thought patterns and shift them to beneficial ones.