More than Cutting: Understanding Self-injury and What You Can Do to Help Someone Stop

Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness   (c) 2018 Nancy Virden, Always The Fight Ministries

Yesterday a friend joked about cutting, a serious self-injurious behavior some people fall into for a variety of reasons. It is commonly viewed as an adolescent female problem. My friend meant no disrespect to those who struggle with this, but I realize it must seem very strange to someone with limited knowledge of this behavior.

What self-injury IS

Clinically known as non-suicidal self-injury or NSSI,  self-injury is a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions and mood.  

Self-injury is deliberate mutilation of one’s body through cutting, burning, and other injurious behaviors.  It crosses all age, gender, economic, national, occupational, social, sexual, racial, religious, and educational lines.  Clearly, self-injury is not limited to adolescent girls.  According to  studies, at least 35 percent of self-injurers may be male. *

For a more in-depth article from the American Psychological Association on self-injury and it’s relation to social issues, mental health,  eating disorders, and future suicide attempts, see Who Self-Injures by Tori DeAngelis.

What self-injury IS NOT

Let’s be clear on what “self-injury” is not. It is not tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, or nail-biting unless the goal behind these choices is to deliberately cause pain and harm to one’s body. 

Self-injury is certainly not normal, and is often confused with suicidal tendencies.  People who self-injure are often doing what they know to do to face life, not die.

How self-injury WORKS in the body

Endorphins are a biological calming chemical that  release during and after self-injury.  

My dad used to joke when I complained of a stomach ache, “Let me stomp on your toe and you’ll forget all about the stomach ache.” This is a loose interpretation of one of the purposes behind self-injury; it draws one’s attention from strong emotions, anxiety, or numbness one does not want to feel.

The DANGERS of self-injury

Self-injury teaches nothing about healthy coping skills.  It does not improve any circumstance, relationship, or self-image. It creates a false sense of control, and must be repeated to continue to work.  It is addcitive and difficult for a self-injurer to stop. The behavior will have to increase in frequency and level of damage to achieve desired results. Later, regret over scars may interfere with a positive self-image, human connection, or intimacy.

What does NOT HELP someone who self-injures

When someone we know is engaging in self-injury, it is not helpful to make a comparison to what we or anyone else in the world is suffering. “You do not have it so bad,” or “I had problems with my family too, but you don’t see me cutting myself,” is the same as dismissing a person’s emotional pain as not worth taking seriously.  Instead of recognizing an obvious need for expressing and learning how to manage emotions,  we add more rejection to the mix.

We cannot stop his or her self-injurious behavior. Each person has to decide whether to practice self-care.  A more effective means of influencing the situation is to avoid panic and other reactionary responses fueled by high emotion.  

Often, it is best to not bring up the topic of self-injury unnecessarily and to avoid discussing details of injuries or looking at scars because this can trigger compulsive behavior.  

What WILL HELP someone who self-injures

Distraction may buy time until an impulse lessens. One young woman would go for a run when she felt the urge to cut. She acknowledged it did not “cure” the urge to self-injure, but used up adrenaline and bought her time to change her mind.  Perhaps there is an activity you and a recovering self-injurer could do together. 

Understand the problem is not self-injury.  It is the self-injurer’s unmanaged emotions or mood and perhaps the relationships or circumstances surrounding the struggle that need addressing.  Point a self-injurious person to competent and often professional help.

Discuss the situation openly without judgment. Listen to his or her needs even if those needs do not make sense to you right away.  When love is compassionate instead of controlling, it is gentle. It supports each person’s value and ability to learn healthy ways. Love also celebrates each step forward.

Today’s Helpful Word

1 Corinthians 13:4  

Love is patient, love is kind.



NOTE:  I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness, addiction, and abuse. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help are yours.

*From Who Self-injures by Tony Deangelis on the American Psychological Association website. Retrieved on March 17, 2018 from

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