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First things first; you definitely know someone who cut in high school. You’re likely friends with someone who did. The number sits at 10% of high schoolers, at least. Regardless of whether or not you are privy to it, someone you know has harmed themselves intentionally. I think that’s reason enough to want to know why it happens, and as a long recovered self harmer, I see myself as well positioned to give a respectable rundown on why folks (mainly kids) cut, and more importantly why they, and you, shouldn’t!
In the way I have observed it, there are three primary underlying causes for self harm that all tie back to some form of mental illness. In a brief background summary, self harm is most common within personality disorders, trauma-based disorders, and obsessive compulsive and/or eating disorders, but can tempt anyone.
1.) The self-harmer is experiencing unbearable inner pain and must externalize it.
Imagine the most angry you’ve ever been. Did you want to scream, punch a pillow? Are you an angry crier?
An angry elf? Now imagine the most distraught you’ve ever been. Were you broken up with, screamed at, lied to, did you feel unlovable? Hopeless, helpless? Intensify that feeling, imagine if it were absolutely unmanageable. It feels as if there is no way forward. What would you do?
To many who suffer from mental illnesses, self harm is an answer. Whatever is happening inside of their head is too much to be contained, and taking a razor, scissors, a flame, or whatever they have access to, is the easiest way to alleviate the blaring.
This reasoning is common for those who suffer from Borderline Personality disorder and other personality disorders, for the unstable moods and impulsivity that those disorders cause can lead to an explosion of emotion that seems only curable by something fast, violent.
DBT therapy is the best therapy out there for personality disorders, and indeed was invented for the purpose of treating BPD patients. It’s commonly utilized for other disorders now, too, which is why I have experience with it, but its skills based, in-the-moment support approach is good for “riding the wave” of a self harming urge. This is actually part of why DBT didn’t work well for me; my self harming, and similar impulses, wasn’t based in an explosion of personality disorder-based impulsivity. For those whose harming is based on that, however, finding a way to make it through the moment is crucial. Skills I was introduced to include snapping a rubber band on yourself, holding ice to your wrist, exercising, and a cold water head plunge. The key is to do something similarly physically dramatic but without the long-lasting and potentially life threatening consequences. Along those lines, keeping in mind the very short term benefits of harming, versus the long term detractors, is a common method of keeping self-harming urges at bay.
2.) The self-harmer is dissociated or numbed out and wants to feel intensity.
When I was/am experiencing PTSD at various periods throughout my life, this was a factor (and is now merely a temptation). Dissociating is a common way to deal with trauma, and is a swing in a different direction from a personality disorder like BPD, which is often based in trauma. When I was experiencing trauma, I almost completely dissociated from my true self. I went a long period of time without crying once, despite being a chronic crier in almost every situation, whether happy, sad, or neutral. It was hard to know what I was feeling, and whenever I understood it, it was as if my emotions were being explained to me from behind a glass partition, such that it was muffled and dulled beyond recognition. I hurt myself then to connect to something real and powerful.
There are, of course, many ways to deal with trauma, even desires to feel powerful sensations, that don’t involve self-harming. First, being in an unsafe, trauma inducing situation is never acceptable, and appropriate measures must always be taken to remove oneself from traumatic influences. Once removed, trauma therapy (CBT, EMDR, etc) is a proven-effective tool for getting to the heart of the matter. More immediately, though, dramatic sensations can be felt in more healthy ways. Taking a hot or cold shower, swimming, a massage, brushing your hair, even closeness with partners and/or safe, consensual sexual activity (careful, though, not to use these instead of treatment, they are only positive additions!) are ways to connect with your positive physicality. Feeling physically, intensely, doesn’t need to feel like how it did before. How it felt before is over, and I promise that you want to feel good, even if you don’t know what good feels like yet, which leads me into the final reason…
3.) The self-harmer wants to punish themselves.
This was why I first cut myself, when I was in the eighth grade. I’d just fought with a family member and felt a deep, screaming hatred and disgust for myself that I had no way to release. Screaming into my pillow, punching it as hard as I could, punching my forearm over and over, wasn’t enough. I spent half an hour plucking the blade out of a spare disposable razor, scratching up my fingertips inadvertently, and sliced smoothly, singularly across my left wrist. I wore bandages around it for much of the end of eighth grade and into freshman year as I continued the habit. My pediatrician wasn’t ever really satisfied by my explanation that my “wrist stabilizing” bandages were giving me an allergic latex reaction (though my real latex allergy provided me a decent enough cover). My Latin teacher even commented on it a few times. I always wondered if he knew. No one knew, at least not that I remember, that I escalated to carving words into my thighs: self punishing words like selfish, slut, fat. Yes, this is the reason that most resonates with me.
There are a few common reasons for such disgust. Survivors of trauma and abuse often feel as if they are bad and deserve to be punished, for they wouldn’t be abused if not for some inherent failing of theirs. Imagine if you were dead set on punishing yourself in an unhealthy manner; what would you do? As a teenager who has limited access to drugs and alcohol, your best bet would be to harm yourself. But this isn’t the best bet, and this lesson took me years to really embrace.
No child is born into the world deserving of hatred or disgust. There is an element of nature to all of our behavior, but I am a firm believer that we are mostly just nurtured sponges for the leaks of our environmental factors. Bullied as a kid? Punishment. Abused? Punishment. Neglected, invalidated? Punishment. Abandoned, forgotten? Punishment. There are all kinds of things that happen to children that create the impulse to self punish, but that’s just it; things happen to these people that they internalize as being about them. The best therapy I’ve ever gotten has been focused on unraveling the childhood and environmental factors that lead to current behavior, and when unpacked, self-punishing behavior is almost always based in events that weren’t the fault of the cutter, the burner, but that they’ve adopted as their burden. It’s truly a heartbreak.
To summarize, self harming is happening all around you because pain that feels inescapable is a condition of empathetic, feeling human beings. Some of those beings, however, aren’t naturally equipped with the tools to manage unmanageability, and they diverge from their natural, evolutionary instincts to inflict unnecessary harm and pain upon themselves (though it feels necessary in the moment).
The self harmer should instead spend time getting to know themselves and the likely traumatic reasons why they are inflicting pain upon themselves and, in the meantime, adapt tools to endure self-harming urges. The endorphins issued during the act can form something of an addiction, and it’s much harder to break the habit once that’s happened, but some ice or a rubber band to the wrist, a dive into a pool or a douse under the shower, can truly do more than this post can give them justice. Anything is better than having to wrap yourself in bandages, mop wounds. I used to hide bloody rags in my shoe rack. When I moved houses, I found them stuffed behind a pair of old converse that I’d painted to look like a Panic at the Disco album cover, for a concert I attended with my best friends. It was a chilling juxtaposition between what I had to lose and how I was choosing to lose it.
As they say, self harming is a short term solution to a long term problem, and it only stains chaos in its wake. And if you know someone who’s self harming currently, PLEASE inform a trusted adult. Self harm isn’t a direct indicator of suicide attempts, but it can be a light predictor. I reported a self harming friend to a counselor when I was in eighth grade and though it cost me a short period of time in a dear friendship of mine, I know I did the right thing.
There’s always, with no exceptions, a better way than turning on your own body.