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.
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.