Cutting is one of the most misunderstood human behaviors most especially because of how much it scares people. People assume that cutters are dangerous. The common thought is “If they could do that to themselves, what could they do to me?” And like any addiction, cutting is an extremely difficult thing to stop. For this article, I will be referring to people who engage in self-harming behaviors as cutters. I use this term, because it is the common term used for those who engage in self-harm. But let it be known that cutting is not an identity, it is a symptom. And cutting is only one form of self-harm. There are also people who burn themselves, intentionally imbed objects in their body, poison themselves, bruise themselves, intentionally break their own bones, pull out their own hair, freeze themselves and the list goes on. Each method of self-injury is preferred by the person doing it for certain reasons. For example, a cutter may prefer cutting because they feel like the trapped emotion in their body is being washed out or released with the blood that they spill. The first thing we must understand is that cutting is not the same thing as a suicide attempt. Though some cutters are suicidal, some cutters are not. Cutting is a coping mechanism. The second thing we must understand is that cutting is addictive. It is an addictive compulsion. For anything to meet the criteria of addiction, it has to adhere to the “3 Cs’”
- Craving for the substance,
- Loss of control once the thought to use arises and
- Continued use in spite of negative consequences.
Cutting fits these three criteria and a lot of the addiction to cutting revolves around the addiction to endorphins.
Endorphins block pain and also play a part in our ability to feel relief and pleasure. They affect us much like codeine or morphine does. When endorphins reach the opioid receptors limbic system (including the part of your brain called the hypothalamus), you experience relief, pleasure and a sense of satisfaction. You also feel more calm and positively energized. Here’s the thing, when your body experiences pain your brain releases endorphins. Endorphins both soothe and energize you so you can get out of harm’s way. For this reason, cutting soothes negative emotion. It is a coping mechanism which provides temporary relief of intense feelings such as anxiety, guilt, depression, stress, emotional numbness or a sense of failure or self loathing and low self worth or the pressure of perfectionism. We can become addicted to the chemicals that our own body produces in response to certain things with the same veracity that we become addicted to a street drug. And as soon as we associate the action of cutting with the corresponding feeling of relief, we create neuropathways in our brain that automatically compel us to seek relief when we feel negative emotion by cutting. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
To understand the motive for cutting, we need to go even deeper. Self-harm is not a behavior solely demonstrated by humans. Animals who are captive also engage in self-harming behaviors. What does this teach us? It teaches us that the human cutter feels as if they are captive. Without exception, like a caged animal, the cutter is in a prison where negative emotion (especially despair and hatred and rage) cannot be expressed. And so those emotional states are internalized. There is nowhere for the energy to turn but inward towards the self. And so they are expressed upon the self. The emotional states that compel a person towards cutting are the result of childhood traumas. For example, one of the most common causal situations that leads to cutting is that a child perceives themselves to be emotionally rejected by a parent that is supposed to love them. This is common of course if the child is born to a critical or perfectionistic parent. The child develops hatred and rage for that parent and experiences a deep level of despair but when the child expresses those emotions, they are shamed for it. Their emotions are invalidated. Their parent turns the emotion back on the child by implying that the emotions mean something is wrong with the child because there is no other valid reason for them to feel that way. Because of this, the feelings are internalized. The child becomes hyper-critical of themselves and that hatred, now internalized becomes focused at the self. To further understand this causal scenario that leads to cutting, imagine a fish in a fish tank. Imagine the fish projecting emotion outwards. The emotion will hit the glass walls of the tank and ricochet back towards the fish. As a cutter, it may take you years to realize that no child is born hating themselves. That instead, some aspect of you was rejected or hated by those who were supposed to love you and that because you were never allowed to expose that truth of you lives without it being invalidated, you internalized it and now treat yourself the way that they treated you; like something is inherently wrong with you and that you are bad and thus need to be punished. Cutters exchange emotional torture for physical mutilation. All cutters are self-loathing. All cutters are self-critical. You did not learn to view yourself this way by chance, you were seen this way by other people and that is how you learned to see yourself this way. I challenge you to look beyond the surface of things, beyond the myth that because your parents are your parents, they love you and instead look deep within yourself and admit to who should have loved you but didn’t or couldn’t.
Cutting is so often a sign of abuse, especially sexual abuse because it is a manifestation of the despair and self loathing that arises from internalizing the despair and rage that occurs when we are not loved by someone who we wanted to love us. It is also an attempt to gain control over our body, which we did not have control over when it was being used by other people. When it comes to our negative emotions, we do not feel the capacity to feel the feelings we feel, especially if our feelings were treated as “not ok” and “not valid” growing up. So, we are after two things: Sedation and Control. To sedate our emotions means to numb or drown out our awareness of our uncomfortable or painful feelings. To control is to gain power over our discomfort and pain. When we feel negative emotion, we feel out of control, so we gain back out control by exerting control over the way we feel. All addictions without fail exist to either sedate or control the way we feel. Cutting accomplishes both sedation and control. Endorphins sedate our feelings. The act of cutting, gives us control over our bodies and control over causing a sensation of relief within our bodies by causing an endorphin release. There are two main types of cutters, those who keep the cutting secret and those who are demonstrative about it. Whether a person is secretive or demonstrative about cutting says a lot about whether they are more desperate for sedation or more desperate for control over themselves. Those who keep their cutting ritualized and secret are more desperate for control. They often cut in areas that are not visible to society, like the inside of the thighs. They feel no control over their bodies or their emotions. By doing what they like with their body and keeping it secret, they keep something for themselves. This gives them a sense of control over themselves, which they have been lacking.
Those who cut in areas on their body that are open to public view like the wrists or arms, are more desperate for sedation. They are desperate for the sedation to come through other people. These cutters are desperate for rescue. Society shames them for cutting by saying that they just cut for the sake of attention. And so, they cannot admit to anyone or even themselves that what they want is for someone to notice. They are in a prison of a torturous situation, unseen by society and the people around them. They are shamed for wanting the attention that subconsciously they do want so badly. They want attention because they want someone to save them from the hell that they are living in. Think of it as a visible SOS. Shaming a cutter for wanting attention is like shaming a person in a hostage situation for trying to get attention by writing SOS on a wall. The dream is that on top of the sedation of the endorphin release, someone will come to sedate our pain by loving and caring about us enough. Of course cutting has the opposite effect on people; it drives them away.
When it comes to cutting (like any addiction), stop making healing about stopping the behavior itself. The behavior of cutting is just a symptom of a deeper cause. Symptoms disappear only when their root cause disappears. When I work with cutters, we do not make the healing process about cutting at all. We view the behavior of self-mutilation the same way we would view a rash. It is a symptom. We get down to the business of addressing the root cause. Cutting is done to avoid and escape from the way we feel, but as long as we avoid the way we feel, we cannot find healing. We have to be willing to go in the opposite direction when we feel upset and use the compulsive energy we feel to propel us deeper within the very emotion we are trying to escape from. We set out to integrate the emotional body. For this reason, I ask that anyone who is struggling with cutting watch my video on YouTube titled Healing the Emotional Body. There are many techniques that are designed to end the cutting behavior itself. For obvious reasons, I think this is an artificial solution. It is treating a symptom instead of a cause. That being said, I will tell you the single technique that worked to end my own cutting. The cause of your cutting is rooted in very early childhood. No exceptions to this rule. This is why all good emotional trauma techniques to some degree put you back in touch with the child within. And once you have begun to interact with the child within and recognize the childhood place where your negative emotions come from, you have the single best tool to thwart your cutting behavior. It can be summed up in one sentence. IMAGINE THAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO CUT THE CHILD IN YOU.
Most cutters have a ritual spot that they cut. My spot was in the bathroom. I found the most adorable childhood photograph of myself that I could and taped it up on the wall of my bathroom. If you don’t have a picture of yourself, imagine yourself as an adorable child. When you go to cut yourself, imagine that you are cutting the small child you. When I began doing this, every time I went to cut myself, I would imagine grabbing the arm of this little childhood self and cutting her. I’d imagine her crying and not understanding why she was being hurt and punished in this way. The first few times I did this exercise, I collapsed into tears on the bathroom floor. I could not do that to a child. And so, because that child is within me, I could not do it to myself. And I will say that if you are able to cut despite the presence of this child within you, you are still not in touch with the child within on an experiential level. You are conceptualizing of a theoretical child you do not feel within you yet. If you know someone who is cutting, you must know that you cannot stop their behavior for them. They have to want to stop cutting and to want to stop cutting, cutting has to not serve them anymore. And as long as they have un-integrated emotional trauma within them, the cutting still serves them because it allows them to escape those painful emotions. Keep in mind that the worst thing you could do to a cutter is to shame them for cutting, this does nothing more than add fuel to the fire of why they are cutting in the first place. If you want to help, don’t react to the cutting behavior itself. Demonstrate your unconditional love to them by drawing attention to and desire to understand the emotions that they are trying to escape from by cutting. On some level, every cutter wants you to know how much pain they are in. They need to be acknowledged and they need their pain to be validated instead of invalidated. They need to be loved regardless of how they feel instead of be led to believe that they are only lovable and wanted if they feel good. What they need is the opposite of rejection. They need to know that something is right with them instead of wrong.
If any cutters are reading this now, take this last sentence I have said to heart. What you need is the opposite of rejection. Nothing is wrong with you. Instead, something is right. Your emotions are reflecting deeply suppressed emotional trauma. Traumas you may not even be willing to admit to yourself yet. Identify your triggers. The scenarios that cause you to cut are a hint about the emotional trauma you suffered at the hands of other people in your childhood. Your emotions are telling you exactly and accurately how you have been emotionally treated by others. Just don’t expect the people who treated you this way… to own up to it.