Inside The Mind Of A Self-Cutter

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Incidences of such acts of self-injury as body piercing or cutting are growing among our teens. According to a study published in Abnormal Psychology, 14 % to 39% of adolescents engage at least once in some form of self-mutilating behavior. Clinics that treat self-mutilators report a significant increase in such behaviors and label it as a "trend" that is on the rise among school children.

Why do some of our children engage in self-mutilation? What is inside the mind of a self-cutter? The answer is complex, multifaceted and highly speculative at this point.

The act of self-mutilation is different from overdosing on pills. After all, there is a difference between a pill and a razor. One swallows a pill with water but a razor is manipulated in order to cut. Self-mutilation is an act of daring and involves overcoming the fear of pain. It appears that those doing it, wish to change the way they feel through self-mutilation.

Body piercing in such severe form as lips, tongue or uvula may amount to self-mutilation but it is a behavior that is very much for public display. There is often nothing secretive about it. However, cutting, burning or bruising oneself is private and personal and often carried out in secrecy. Princess Diana wore long gowns. Visible signs of scars often embarrass self-mutilators and they may try to hide them by wearing long sleeve shirts, pants and cover-all gowns.

Feeling nothing or feeling too much both can trigger self-mutilation. Some can't feel anything. When numbness becomes unbearable, they cut themselves to at least feel pain. Some might feel such intense emotional pain they would cut themselves out of desperation in hopes that the physical pain would numb them against emotional pain.

Some feel extremely lonely and cut themselves to escape from that deafening silence, deadness and emptiness. Others are so tired of the constant emotional turmoil they cut themselves to calm those emotional storms. For example, some would cut when they are crying out of control and feel that cutting themselves might provide instant relief. .

I wrote a couple of articles on self-injury in the past and posted them on my website, where visitors could comment or ask questions regarding the subject. When sending me e-mail, some self-mutilators would use bright red color fonts against a very dark black background. Perhaps it's an indication of underlying sadness and depression and that "bloodletting" is a way of expressing one's pain in an attempt to seek relief.

The following personal-emotional conditions are frequently reported in the literature as associated with self-mutilation: clinical depression and anxiety; borderline personality disorder; discord at home; school failure; sexual abuse history and love-hate relationship with one's body.

The "celebrity factor" may also be playing a part in the so called trend for self-mutilation, For example, published revelations about the alleged self-injury behaviors of Princess Diane and actress Angeline Jolie were followed by dramatic increase in self-injury behaviors among teens and young adults.

A preteen cut self out of curiosity to see if it really hurt after seeing the movie "Thirteen" which had a girl that cut herself. It is argued by some that television and media exposure can influence impressionable minds to harm themselves.

Negative body image and overall low self-esteem combined with persistent loneliness can sometimes lead to self-mutilation in people who feel all alone even in the presence of others.

From descriptions I have received, some don't think that cutting their body is a big deal considering the unbearable pain they must bear in their daily lives. They don't believe they have any positive qualities, skills or talents. They haven't found something they really care about and don't feel they belong anywhere. They seem to feel as if "No one seems to know what I am going through and nobody seems to care."

The act of cutting and bleeding seem to provide a sense of control to some who feel they have no control over their lives.

When one feels one has no control over their pain and anger, they might accidentally or intentionally discover that the oozing out of blood provides them relief or even a high. Endorphins are the body's opium. Thanks to endorphins, when a deer is bleeding and on its way into the mouth of a lion, it is anesthetized to pain. At least that's what some scientists say.

At any rate, for some teens the discovery of relief or a "high" by blood letting sets a pattern for the future. Some may receive real attention from people around them for the first time, which may reinforce the pattern in the future. The razor becomes the symbol of relief, reassurance and caring attention. The urge to harm oneself occurs to many, but some are overwhelmed by the urge and act on it.

Some get addicted to tattoos or body piercing because the breaking of the skin with the needle not only produces endorphins but also directly release the tension in the skin. Skin, after all, is an emotional organ and a central register of emotional tension and relaxation.

If you are a teen reading this, encourage a troubled friend, sibling or loved one to seek help and break the secrecy. Urge them not to drown the pain with alcohol or drugs either. Help them feel they are not alone and they can do other things to lessen the emotional pain.

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Copyright 2005, Mind Publications 
Posted May 2005


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