The Societal Normalisation of Self-Harm by Mike Swift.

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

Even as a trained counsellor, with years of personal therapy, I still slip into patterns of behaviour that aren’t good for me. Taking good care of myself is an ongoing task.

The following post is an adaptation from a chapter in my thesis on self-harm. I briefly discuss the line that separates self-harm from ‘normal’ behaviour and conclude that.. well.. there isn’t really a line. We all self-harm on some level, it’s a matter of perspective.

While it may seem clear to most that behaviours like cutting one’s skin with a razor constitute self-harm, if we look beyond a behaviour’s cultural context, the line that defines when a ‘normal’ behaviour becomes an act of self-harm is less clear (Turp 2003: 21).

As a society, what we consider to be self-harm often has more to do with what is generally acceptable than with a more objective assessment of the harm an individual does to himself. Cutting one’s skin with a razor is generally seen as transgressive even though it's less physically harmful than, for example, the largely accepted and favourite British pastime of weekend binge drinking.

A ‘CASHA’ (Culturally Acceptable Self-Harming Act) describes any act that can be argued harms the self in some way yet is normalised in society, and thus not typically thought of as self-harm. This would include relatively ‘mild’ acts: the time I neglected myself because I ‘could not be bothered’ or ate nothing but junk food for an entire day (Turp 2003: 20). It would also include behaviours that are more physically harmful yet socially acceptable such as drinking and recreational drug taking. However, whether legal or illegal drug-use is acceptable or not, and therefore viewed as an act of self-harm or not, really depends on the perceptions of the onlooker, which vary according to age, social group, upbringing and so on (Aaronson 2006: 3).

Taking CASHAs into account, all people exist somewhere along the scale of self-harm to self-care (Aaronson 2006: 2). Moreover, where a person is on this scale is often reflective of the level of emotional distress they are in (Aaronson 2006: 11). When we have a good-enough capacity to self-care and are able to offer ourselves compassion, we are less likely to turn to self-harming behaviours. Our lapses in self-care are likely to be limited to CASHAs (Turp 2003: 71).

I think it's interesting to consider how our own values shape our understanding of self-harm. Perhaps looking at the way self-harm connects us, rather than separates us, might be a way to increase the compassion that we, as humans, have for each other, a way to diminish the victim-blaming that is so prevalent in our society.

Mike Swift, April 2021


Aaronson. R. (2006) Addiction - this being human: a new perspective, Milton Keynes: AuthorHouse.

Turp, M. (2003) Hidden self-harm: narratives from psychotherapy, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

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