Cutting is one of the most misunderstood human behavior […]
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’” 1. Craving for the substance, 2. Loss of control once the thought to use arises and 3. 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.