Cutting & Self-Harming Behaviors


Cutting and self-harming behaviors are hard for those who don’t physically hurt themselves to understand. But, like all of our seemingly senseless behavior, cutting and other self-harming behaviors make sense if you can see them from a different viewpoint. Cutting is an external representation of an internal experience that the person usually has a difficult time expressing. Overwhelming feelings that are common in those who self-injury are anger and loneliness. Because culturally, girls are not permitted to fully express their anger, it makes sense that the majority of people who cut are young women. Young women are also culturally trained to turn their pain inward. For example, if a relationship doesn’t work out, instead of thinking “he’s not good enough for me,” young girls more often think, “what’s wrong with me?”

Cutting also makes sense from a purely physiological level. Cutting and other self-harming behaviors release natural pain killers (endorphins). This can often result in a numbed-out state that provides temporary distance from the intense suffering. Successfully stopping self-harming behaviors takes an integrated approach. I teach people who self-injure

  • Distraction techniques when desire to cut is strong
  • Recognize precursors to cutting and learn to avoid and/or prepare for them
  • Increase capacity to both name and express feelings and needs
  • Incorporate creative outlets for expression
  • Increase physical activity to release the happy chemicals in the body

Cutting and self-harming behaviors (e.g. branding, hair pulling, picking at skin, and in some cases, excessive piercing or tattooing) often occur with other psychological issues. People who self-mutilate have higher rates of eating disorders, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, and histories of sexual abuse. For this reason, I never treat self-mutilation as a stand-alone condition. In young girls, family coaching or counseling may be a required part of treatment.  If you are cutting yourself or involved in other self-injurious behavior, help is available.