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Why do people cut?

People cut to:

  • Help them feel something when they are numb inside
  • Be able to physically see the pain they feel inside
  • To escape or distract them from their emotional pain
  • To punish themselves
  • Push their pain away
  • Feel a sense of control, joy, or excitement
  • Communicate their emotional pain to others
  • Distract themselves from emotionally painful issues

To those who can’t fathom it, cutting is a mysterious practice. Why would anyone do that to themselves?

People cut to cope with any number of situations–grief, rape, thoughts of suicide, an eating disorder, depression, sexual abuse, relationship disruption, and more. Cutting is a way to turn intangible pain into tangible pain that one can see and understand. Because people “get” blood. They understand physical hurt. All that mumbo jumbo in their heads? That’s hard to figure out. It needs more than a bandaid and Neosporin.

People also cut to be in control of something in their life because so many other things are out of their control. So it’s a way to fight helplessness. And while it’s painful, sometimes that pain actually feels good to the cutter. It offers relief and a distraction to bigger more complex problems that a person can’t solve.

But are people who are cutting trying to kill themselves?

Not really. In fact, some are cutting because they are trying to avoid killing themselves. Officially, behavior like cutting, burning ones’ skin, and other self-harm, is known as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). And while it’s not the healthiest or safest coping strategy, those who do it (or used to) say it works. Don’t assume that all who cut are young people, some adults engage in the behavior, too.

Once a parent discovers their child is cutting, they are horrified with the practice and demand that the kid stop immediately Which I can understand but that can be dangerous. Why? What about the danger of the act itself?

I won’t deny there is danger in cutting

But what if the cutter is trying to avoid a bigger, more life-threatening danger like suicide? If they are using it to cope with thoughts of suicide and the cutter is forced to stop cold turkey, it can put the person’s life at greater risk.

What’s more, if this is the strategy they are using to manage it, and you shame them and demand that they stop without replacing it with a healthier coping strategy, it’s likely going to motivate them to cut more. Because now they feel shame which drives more of that behavior because that’s what they’ve learned to use to cope. The behavior is an addiction.

It’s like telling someone with substance use disorder they have to stop using or you won’t love them. If drinking is how they’ve coped with rejection, then you’re driving that person to engage in more of the detrimental behavior. Cutting is much the same. We can’t yell them out of it and it can’t be resolved by taking away car keys (if it’s a teenager).

What cutting indicates is not that something is wrong with that person, but that something is gravely wrong in that person’s life. If you are a parent reading this, you might take that personally but it could have nothing to do with you at all.

Getting to the root of what is driving the behavior and then transitioning the person gradually to a healthier strategy is a goal that takes time. Behavioral changes always do. There will be relapses, too.

It takes patience, understanding, compassion by loved ones. And more patience. Because it’s shocking and scary. And anyone who loves someone who self harms needs to support that person and not shame them.

Seeking education helps you understand and allows the person cutting know you are trying, too.

It’s true that teens who engage in self-injury are at higher risk for suicide

Why? Because engaging in NSSI over time reduces a teens’ self-protective fears of pain and injury, removing a barrier to attempting suicide (1). Said another way, it raises one’s pain tolerance. They get used to it. So if someone has been cutting, the fear of the pain of killing oneself is minimized. And it’s that fear that often prevents someone from taking their life. There is also a correlation that someone who self harms has or is a victim of trauma or a mental illness that would put them at higher risk anyway.

What can you do? Listen with compassion. Don’t shame the person. And then connect them with treatment. If you are a teen, you have to tell a trusted adult. The article below will help with what to say or do.

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1-Joiner, T., Ribeiro, J., & Silva, C. (2012). Nonsuicidal self-injury, suicide behavior, and their co-occurrence as viewed through the lens of the interpersonal theory of suicide. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 342-347.

Published by

AnneMoss Rogers

AnneMoss Rogers is a mental health and suicide education expert, mental health speaker, suicide prevention trainer and consultant. She is author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW. She raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost her younger son, Charles to addiction and suicide on June 5, 2015. She is a motivational speaker who empowers by educating and provides life saving strategies and emotionally healthy coping skills. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now that's the legacy she carries forward in her son's memory. Mental Health Speakers Website.

4 thoughts on “Why do people cut?”

  1. I recently attended a Suicide Prevention Workshop and the issue of Cutting came up at one point. We were talking about what I call those “esoteric signs” that we are meant to watch out for. One participant shared that they were cutting to feel pain in relation to a loss and that they then felt overwhelmed by the people around them (family and friends) who thought that their cutting was a sign that they wanted to die. This participant went on to explain that they withdrew as the pressure to “convince others” that they were not suicidal, such was becoming just too intense. It was a really useful conversation and everyone applauded the person’s honesty and openness.

    I particularly found this entire article very informative and have printed it out as a useful resource to have on file.

    The reference to the shame aspect is interesting and something that I get by recourse to a different, albeit safer, coping mechanism – overspending. When my partner died to suicide, I went and spent over $4000 on Credit. Now I didn’t buy junk, but I did buy things like 4 Doona covers, a new pot set (over $800), cutlery, new bedding, clothes, two beds (which I didn’t need), a ton of things from Ebay etc, etc. Luckily I became aware of this and so I contacted all my creditors and explained my situation. And then I paid them all back without interest accruing. Some people said that I should obtain a letter from my GP and therapist showing that I was going through an intense psychological ordeal and this would wipe the slate clean. But I didn’t as I bought these items, and therefore I was the one who should pay for them. My creditors were terrific and really went out of their way to assist and support me. The reason I bought these things was similar – I was feeling very suicidal and having a parcel arriving “next week” gave my mind something to focus on.

    The Shame Part – This came (and still comes) from family and friends. If I now buy anything, they are there like pesky mosquitoes, buzzing about, asking me “But why did you buy it, you don’t need it,” or “Do you really think that you need to buy that.” This has made it difficult to now share things that I have bought, with others and so if I buy something special, there is that high of “Wow, I love this, wait to I show…” to the low of “I had better hide it in case someone says something.” That is the Shame Part and people need to realize that Shame can likewise be a killer as it makes one become insulated as too isolated. This is made more difficult as I once had my partner to share the things that I bought as he always took an interest as I did with the things that he bought, be these clothes or things that he added to his collection of old toys.

    1. You really listen to people. That’s such a gift and no doubt made you a great partner to your loved one who died.

      The cutting, overspending, overeating, drinking, drugging, gambling are all typical unhealthy coping strategies and an effort to feel good in the midst of great pain. You are astute to have been able to curtail it and I love that you treat yourself with practical self talk to make sure it’s something you need. Thanks for your contributions here. I know you still love and miss him but your partner would be proud of your continued growth and how you have integrated grief into your life while still cherishing him and his memory.

  2. That’s the one thing I wish others would understand about cutting, it’s not that we are trying to kill ourselves, but the opposite actually. For me self-harm wasn’t just a way of coping with what I was feeling on the inside but also an escape. Those around me might say I’ve recovered but to me I’m still in recovery, because while I’m not actively self-harming, I still have those thoughts (and that’s okay!) nobody said recovery was going to be easy & that’s with anything really, what I learned during my journey early on was that if I really wanted to stop, I had to put the work in to make it happen because there was only so much that others around me could do, yes it was hard but to be where I am today, is what makes it worth it! ❤️

    1. Thank you so much, Cheyenne. Since you are a self harmer in recovery these words are pure gold because they help others understand the “why.” But most importantly your comment and story offers hope.

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