Understanding Cutting and other Self-harming Behaviors


Young people today face a variety of challenges and problems that are puzzling to many parents, caregivers and other involved adults.  This population is much more susceptible to past trauma, peer pressures and other stressful everyday life issues than adults. A few have turned to or know someone who have used cutting themselves or other self-harming behaviors as a way to cope with their problems.  Cutting and other self-harming behaviors are only temporary solutions to feeling “better”, in fact, it is an attempt to numb or escape from emotional pain.  However, it is only a matter of time before the pain comes back and the cycle starts again.

Who self-harms?

The typical person who engage in self-harming behaviors are adolescent boys and girls (girls tend to self-harm more than boys).  Some as young as two years old are known to bite themselves, strike themselves or hit their heads against walls and floors.  Boys tend to act outward (punching and kicking walls, etc).  Girls tends to act inward (cutting, striking themselves, restrictive diets).

Items used in self-harming behaviors

A person who uses self-harming as a way to cope will use items that are available or some item that produces a particular feeling or mark . Theses items can be the following: disposable shaving razors, scissors, pieces of glass, scratching themselves with their fingernails, excessive picking of sores, pencil erasers, excessive tattooing, piercings and other body modifying procedures. The wounds can vary from superficial to deep cuts and abrasions.

Myths surrounding cutting and self-harming behaviors

People tend to shy away from talking about cutting and other means of self-harm because of the stigma that is associated with it. Here are some misconceptions about cutting and self-harming behaviors.

Myth: Someone self-harming is trying to kill themselves.

  • Fact: Although people do die from self-harm, these instances are accidental; in general, self-harmers do not want to die. In fact, self-injury may be a way of coping, of regaining control of pain in order to go on living.

Myth: People who self-injure are insane.

  • Fact: Those who self-harm are usually dealing with trauma, not mental health problems. There are exceptions, but by and large, they are probably trying to cope with problems in the only way they know how.

Myth: Injuring yourself is a cry for attention.

  • Fact: Friends, family, and even healthcare professionals may think that if you hurt yourself, you are seeking attention, but the painful truth is that people who self-harm generally try to hide what they are doing, rather than draw attention to it, because they feel ashamed and afraid.

Self-harm and your emotions

It is crucial for self-harmers and their families to understand their emotions and learn how to express themselves appropriately.  Understanding the underlying reasons why a person would engage in self-harming behaviors is an essential step toward healing.

Some reasons for Self-harming are:

a) Inflict self-punishment or self-hatred  – A self-harmer may have a childhood history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and erroneously blame themselves for it. Self-harm can be a way to punish oneself.

b) Self-Soothing  – A self-harmer may not know any other means to calm or escape intense emotions.

c) Help express feelings that cannot be put into words – Self-harm may be the only way they know how to display anger or deep sadness.

d) Gain control over your body – Self-harmers may imagine that hurting themselves will prevent something worse from happening.

e) Manage strong emotions. If a self-harmer is experiencing high stress, self-harm can temporarily calm their nerves (distraction from emotions).

f) Take your mind off of your emotional pain – Self-harmers may feel emotionally numb to past traumas and need a way to force themselves into feeling something.

Characteristics of self-injury

Since clothing can hide physical injuries and inner turmoil can be covered up by a seemingly calm disposition, self-injuries can be hard to detect. Due to deep shame and guilt, self-harmers often go to great lengths to keep their injuries a secret. As a family member or friend, it may be up to you to be on the lookout for the warning signs of self-harm and to talk to the person about getting help. Red flags for cutting or self-injury include:

  • Unexplained wounds – A self-harmer may have fresh or scars from cuts, bruises, or cigarette burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs or chest.
  • Indications of depression – Low mood, tearfulness, lack of motivation, or loss of energy can be signs of depression, which may lead to self-injury.
  • Frequent “accidents – Someone who self-harms may claim to be clumsy or have many mishaps, in order to explain any injuries.
  • Changes in eating habits – This could mean being secretive about eating, or unusual weight loss or gain, as eating disorders are often associated with self-harm.
  • Covering up - A person who self-injures may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.

A self-harmer can help end this dangerous cycle by learning safer, more healing ways to deal with their problems. There are professionals who can provide treatment, and ways that can help.