Cutting or self-injury (SI) is about scratching or cutting your body with a sharp object (scissor, razor blade, paper clip, glass, tweezers etc.) enough so that the skin is broken and bleeds. As was mentioned in Cutting Part 1, this behavior is not usually meant as a suicidal gesture.
- Adolescents who cut experience powerful feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- Often these are kids who have been bullied or rejected by their peers.
- Their parents have unrealistically high expectations, or they have witnessed domestic abuse of some sort.
- Invariably kids that cut do not feel as though they have a good support system. They do not feel that the important people in their life really listen or understand them.
- These adolescents do not know how to handle the overwhelming and complicated emotions (sadness, rage, loss, desperation, loneliness, powerlessness, fear, emptiness, abandoned, hatred, confusion, unlovable…). The turmoil and pain is simply too much to bear and they often feel powerless to make things better. Cutting is a self-abusive behavior that is intended to relieve emotional pain and suffering.
- Most cutters are girls, though not always. Cutters often begin to experiment with this behavior in early adolescence. Though most cutters grow out of this self-injurious behavior, some do not and continue into adulthood.
- Usually the scratches or scars are made in places that are hidden from others (wrists, arms, legs, bellies) so that the cutters can maintain secrecy.
- The first step is getting emotional support for the cutter. The urge to cut is always associated with unexpressed emotion. At times kids need hospitalization for cutting so that they can have an intensive inpatient experience before they begin the more long term process of talking, understanding and teasing out the underlying feelings and issues.
- Cutting often involves a “dual diagnosis.” This means the adolescent can also be suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc.
- Once the problem has been identified cutters need to find venues for talking to trusted friends, adults, counselors, teachers, doctors, or clergy which helps move along the healing process. Connection and communication are keys to overcoming this behavior. While difficult at first, talking and feeling heard are essential to emerging from this self-destructive behavior.
- Although witnessing this behavior in a young (or any) person can be quite disturbing, parents, teachers and caretakers need to support, rather than blame.
Some Behavioral Strategies for Helping the Cutter
There are ways of dealing with emotional pain that are far more effective than cutting. Sometimes adolescents don’t have great coping mechanisms in place just yet. Here are some ideas that might shift your attention and help you minimize or eliminate behavior to prevent seriously injuring yourself.
- Call a friend or communicate with someone trusted the minute the impulse strikes.
- Remove all sharp objects from your room. If you do find yourself with a sharp implement, consider carving something out of wood or even a fragrant bar of soap.
- Take a walk, exercise, draw or paint, write, keep a journal, sing or listen to music to self-express and to shift the focus away from cutting.
- Wear a rubber band around the wrist and when the impulse to cut comes, snap the band tightly. It will sting, but not create the same risk factors as cutting.
- Take a red marker and draw the places where you want to cut, so that it is “as if” you are cutting without the damage.
- Hold an ice cube on the area that you want to cut until it burns, so the pain sensation is felt, but again without real injury to the body.
- Learn some relaxation techniques such as abdominal breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, chanting. Practice saying affirmations that feel meaningful to you.
- Learn to love and respect yourself to continue getting the help you need.
- Remember that you can overcome this behavior with practice and getting the right resources. You are worth it. You matter. You have what it takes to succeed. You can help others with what you learn. This is an important journey to self-awareness and self-love.
Of all the strategies listed, in my experience the one that is by far the most powerful is learning to communicate in a healthy with others and building effective support systems. When strong positive relationships are in place, these self-injurious impulses not only quiet down but also often cease to exist.
Some of the methods are good to use when the cutting mind is still actively focused on this self-injurious behavior. Eventually the thought to hurt oneself should quiet down with therapy and by learning other coping strategies.
What are your thoughts about how to get the word out and educate others about the complicated issue of cutting?