Self-Harm and the Helper Personality

By Christian T. Hill, M.A.

A helper personality is someone whose nature is wired to not only help others but sometimes help others at the expense of themselves, especially when in their teenage years.

Support Northern Colorado Journalism

Show your support for North Forty News by helping us produce more content. It's a kind and simple gesture that will help us continue to bring more content to you.

BONUS - Donors get a link in their receipt to sign up for our once-per-week instant text messaging alert. Get your e-copy of North Forty News the moment it is released!

Click to Donate

As Elissa entered my office, she physically sought out the furthest possible place from me, positioning herself on the couch, sinking into the seat, trying to disappear into the safety of the cushions. Pale-skinned and with unkempt hair, Elissa, in her own words, dressed that day to “be invisible”.

It’s so important to take the time and patience to make a new teen client feel calm, comfortable, and safe, slowly engaging in light conversation and gauging what the client is and is not comfortable with. It takes courage to come in, as teens are often overwhelmed and shameful and sharing with a stranger is a challenge. It’s important to resist the urge to ask the obvious, over-arching question with self-harm teens: “Why?”.  What leads one to desire external pain, to prefer pain, to seek to harm themselves?

The answer to questions such as this is rarely simple. My acronym, S.C.A.R.S., helps summarize common themes behind the reasons for self-harm: Self-punishment, Control, Attention, Regulation of mood, and Self-expression.

While Elissa’s issues were a bit unique, I quickly learned she fell under the category of Control. Elissa’s life, for the most part, was actually pretty good: a loving family, decent grades, and hobbies, like writing, horseback riding, and music.  However, what was troubling Elissa the most was not necessarily something going on in her life, but in the lives of the people, she loved the most.

Elissa explained her parents had recently been fighting a lot, and although both parents assured her it was not her fault, Elissa blamed herself. She believed she should be able to mend it, and this looming disappointment became so overwhelming with mounting self-hate.  Simultaneously, Elissa’s best friend Amber had begun feeling suicidal, sharing her thoughts with Elissa, another burden that Elissa took personal responsibility for as she helplessly watched her friend struggle.

At this point in her journey, it became clear: Elissa has a “helper personality”.  Even though she is practicing self-destructive behaviors, these actions originate from a good place, deep inside her, stemming from a desire to help and heal others.

The good news is after doing this for over 15 years, as teens who self-harm grow and mature, eventually, many of them end up in the helping profession, as either counselor, educators, medical professionals, or working for a non-profit.  This is an important commonality when it comes to understanding them, to help them untwist this belief that they are responsible for others and help them find focused ways to exhibit that helper personality trait.  Once we help them learn to view themselves differently and recognize what is and is not their responsibility, the scars and behaviors tend to take care of themselves.

If you know someone who is struggling with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, always seek professional help.  Please refer to the references below.

Hopeline:  1-919-231-4525 (call or text) or National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Christian T. Hill, M.A. can be reached at 719-233-TEEN or

“The Self-Harm Expert”

325 Second Street, Suite H

Monument, CO 80132