Find a way out of Self-Harm: Know your Emotions

Self-harm is a coping mechanism to alleviate emotional distress, right? So the way out means understanding emotional distress, and finding better coping mechanisms. Know your emotions is important groundwork to prepare you to successfully use better coping mechanisms (next post).


Emotions are not just a bunch of thoughts, they are closely connected to the body. Emotions produce thoughts, thoughts produce emotions, but having a thought is very different to being gripped by an emotion. We tend to distrust and even fear emotions. This leads to avoiding emotions and staying ignorant about them.

Not good.

Emote means “to move out.” Emotions are like waves moving out of you. They arise in response to perceived threat or benefit to your body. Fear, for example, is a response to threat (like seeing a snake), while love and joy are responses to benefit (like a hug). Emotions help you survive. Fear causes “fight or flight” so we can defend against or flee from a sabre-toothed tiger.

Anger can helps you stand up for yourself against injustice, then it becomes useful determination. All emotions also teach us. Fear teaches us caution. Grief teaches us about who we love. Love and joy teach us too.

Emotions deepen the experience of life.

To gain control over how you react to your emotions, you’ll need to notice, label and safely express them. That way, you can make your emotions work for you, not against you. Let’s do it.


To get out of self-harm, you need to become emotionally aware. You’ll need to …


Label, and

Safely Express emotions.

We’re usually OK with positive emotions and take them for granted; but we could notice, label and express them to deepen our relationships and experience more joy. Negative emotions are the problem. So let’s work on them here.

Notice: We tend to react to or avoid negative emotions rather than notice them consciously. Notice an emotion, and there’s less chance it will control you. The only bad thing about negative emotions is that they feel bad. That’s it. They can’t hurt you. Your actions (like self-harming) can. So notice negative emotions, think, and aim to control your actions. To notice an emotion, ask yourself

How am I feeling right now?

On a scale of 1 – 10, how strong is this?

Am I distressed by this?

Label: Once you notice an emotion, label it; find a word for it.

Labels for positive emotions include I feel …

happy,    joyful,                 content,    loving,

excited, encouraged,      thankful,   gracious.

Labels for negative emotions include I feel …

sad,                  down,                 grieved,    depressed,         

angry,              anxious,    fearful,      discouraged,

jealous, envious,    guilty,                 ashamed,

annoyed,         hateful,     betrayed, embarrassed.

We have many more words for negative emotions because we have much more to learn from them. Label emotions to know them, understand them, and capture them so they can help you. You feel more in control with a label, just as you feel relieved when a doctor gives you a diagnosis and understands what to do for you. With a label, you pin the emotion down and have more chance to decide what to do and stay in control.

Safely Express: You cannot destroy a negative emotion. You can push it deep down to gather with other negative emotions and fester and build until you explode in anger, shame, or self-hate. It’s better to safely express it; to let it “move out” (emote) safely. here’s how. Say

  feel … [insert label here]

Express that to someone, or write it down once or 100 times. Saying or writing it puts you in charge. You have more control because you are thinking while you’re feeling. That makes it easier to choose what to do.

NOTICE, LABEL and SAFELY EXPRESS your negative emotions to stay in control. Use words. Mix emotions with thoughts. Learn this underlying skill, and you can more easily get out of self-harm. Next post gives you five steps to do just that; but first it’s very useful to understand emotions and not be too afraid of them.

Some people need help getting out of self-harming. If you’re one of them, get help.

Listen to our podcast for more details:



Christian Heim