Most people think cutting only affects angsty teenage girls with lots of eyeliner. But self-harm is a surprisingly widespread phenomenon that affects youth and adults, men and women.
Self-harm (which includes cutting) is one of the last shameful topics. Today, folks take a proud stand against being fat-shamed or slut-shamed, but it’s a rare individual who will stand up and disclose his or her own self-injury.
But self-harm is far more widespread than you might suspect. A 2012 review of 52 self-injury studies from around the world found that around 18% of individuals had cut or otherwise deliberately injured themselves in their lifetime. That’s almost one in five.
Cutting often begins in the teenage years—on average, between the ages of 12-14. And in the U.S., more than 7% of teenagers have cut, burned, or otherwise deliberately injured themselves in the past year alone.
The technical term for cutting is non-suicidal self-injury, and it’s defined as the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue. Plus there are two caveats: first, cutters aren’t trying to kill themselves. On the contrary, they often do it to feel alive rather than numbed. And second, it’s for “for purposes not socially sanctioned.” So your daughter piercing her nose or belly button doesn’t count, no matter how you feel about it. But cutting, burning, carving words or symbols into their skin, painful hair-pulling, and literally banging one’s head against the wall all count as methods of self-harm.
So what’s going on? To the outsider, it may seem incomprehensible, even crazy, but if you go with the truism that each person copes as best they can with the resources they have at the time, it gets a little more understandable. With that, here are four reasons individuals self-injure:
Reason #1: Physical pain diffuses negative emotion. The physical pain not only takes away emotional pain, but creates a sense of calm and relief. Because it works almost instantly, cutting is highly reinforcing—some even say addictive. Cutters describe the sensation as an escape or a release of pressure.
Eventually, the brain starts to connect the the relief from emotional pain with cutting, which creates a strong association, even a craving, that can be hard to resist. And while the average individual who self-injures does so for two to four years, many continue on well beyond that timeframe. Likewise, some injure themselves daily, while others can go weeks, months, or even years between episodes.
Reason #2: People who self-injure are really hard on themselves. A 2014 study asked college students who cut themselves, plus a control group of non-cutters, to keep a daily diary of their emotions for two weeks. The biggest difference between the cutters and the non-cutters? Cutters reported feeling dissatisfied with themselves much more often, which manifested as harsh self-criticism. Indeed, self-injurers criticize themselves mercilessly, and sometimes carve their criticisms into their skin: “fat,” “stupid,” “failure.” Interestingly, a 2012 study showed that harsh self-criticism is most strongly related to self-harm, rather than other, more indirect forms of self-injury, like eating disorders or drinking or drug abuse.
Reason #3: It can be a way to feel. In particular, individuals with a trauma history may self-harm to feel something other than numbness and to take control of their own pain.
Reason #4: It’s an alternative way to feel negative emotion. Kids raised in a household where sadness, hurt, or disappointment get invalidated or mocked quickly learn it’s not okay to feel bad. Cutting becomes an “acceptable” way to feel pain—if they’re not allowed to feel it emotionally, they’ll let it out physically.
In short, think of cutting and self-harm as any other unhealthy coping mechanism like getting drunk, binge eating, or getting high--it’s a way to feel something other than what you’re feeling, and, with the self-criticism angle, can be a way to punish yourself for not measuring up.
It goes without saying that cutting is dangerous—it’s all too easy to cut too deeply, even when suicide isn’t the intent. And individuals who cut know it’s unhealthy--they go to great lengths to hide their behavior, not to mention their scars.