Diversity of motivation among self-harming individuals
An estimated one in twelve teenagers has committed self-harm. Of those many will continue self-injuring into young adult hood. Yet older adults are not immune to committing this act. In 2003-2004 adults age 25-44 were responsible for nearly fifty percent of reported/discovered self-harm cases. There are many reasons that people self-harm. These reasons may include self-harming as a survival mechanism, self-harm as an outer expression of inner emotional turmoil, and self-harm as a means to exercise control over one’s environment.
Contrary to popular thought, only one in ten people who make the decision to self-harm are suicidal. The majority of people who cause injury to themselves willfully have a wish to avoid killing themselves. The act of self-harm is developed as a “technique” to cope and survive the afflictions of life. How can we know that this is the reasoning or thought behind the action of self-harm? “Cutters” typically reason out the least amount of damage that will “remedy” the stress intensive situation that they find themselves in, and exercise an enormous amount of restraint in inflicting only a measured amount of damage. Cutters’ common logic is that through this expression of injury, further damage to their selves may be headed off. --------, a former cutter, attests to the reality of this when he says, “Every time that I touched a blade to my skin, I would resist making a larger cut, a deeper wound. Every time that I hurt myself, I did so only in response to what drove me over the edge; Each time the amount of physical damage that I did was the very least that I could muster. I fought to do the least damage I could, no matter how intense the pain that I felt became.” He sums it up rather nicely.
Secondly, self-harm is used as an outward expression of deeper, more complex emotional and psychological phenomena. It is not a diagnosis; it is a symptom. It is a symptom of a struggle that is inherited by victims of abuse, those who lose a loved one, or experience other traumatic events during their childhood. These groups are far more likely to indulge in self-harm. One study conducted by Boudewyn and Liem found that of those college students that reported a history of self-harm, fifty two percent had been sexually abused as a child. Those that self-harm do not simply cut to cut, burn to burn, or mutilate to mutilate. There is a deeper motivation. This motivation is commonly emotional. These motivational emotions are often the results of tragic or traumatic life experiences. It is seldom that a cutter’s motivation is a want for attention. In fact, most cutters are chameleons.
Self- harm is used as a tool to exercise control in a chaotic environment over which one would not otherwise have any means to control. Among chaos and turmoil such as the loss of a parent or close friend, relational betrayal, divorce of one’s parents, or consistent, one time, or sporadic physical, emotional, or ****** abuse an individual is radically more likely to engage in self-harm. Outside reasoning on this is only speculative. For this reason it is valuable to look at the action from the perspective of those who commit it. Cody, the same individual mentioned earlier says something else that lines up with this common scholarly opinion. He says “I remember the very first time I cut myself intentionally. I was in the ninth grade, in the school bathroom. I had just experienced what I saw as betrayal by my best friend of about ten years. I felt like I lost him. I felt like things were spinning out of control, and I couldn’t control the way I felt about it all. The only way I could feel that control was with something sharp in my hand.” This is characteristic not only of ----- but also of many other cutters.
Cutters are not (necessarily) crazy. On the surface it may appear that cutting goes against the ingrained survival and self-preservation instincts in human beings. This is actually the opposite of the truth. Many who cut feel that if they don’t inflict smaller harm to themselves that they may indeed fall to suicide. They feel that by letting out their pain in increments, and escaping in fragments, that they can slay the thoughts of suicide and urges to escape that they carry. When at the edges of rational, some instincts may take different forms. What may seem counter intuitive – an act of self-harm – becomes the definition of an instinct that it seems to defy. The desire to survive becomes so strong that it is necessary to inflict pain. This is not uncommon to survival situations. For example, the movie 127 Hours reenacts the experience of a man trapped under a boulder in a beautiful and secluded gorge. He cut off his own arm with a dull multi-tool in order to escape death. That act is the epitome of self-harm as a survival instinct.
Cutting could lead to a series of events that tailspin out of control. Loss of control could take the form of the spiral of therapies and prescriptions that would follow if it were discovered that one were cutting , or it could be the accidental slip of a blade gone too far. It could end in hospitalization. It could even end in death. However, those individuals who choose to cut, as long as sober, take precautions to avoid discovery or more injury than is intended. They are meticulous, careful even. They reason out how, where, and when they can cut “safely”. They are very much in control over the act, when they feel they cannot be in control of anything else.
It may rationally appear that pain is pain. That it would make no difference whether out or inward, because whatever its state, the pain is still owned by the individual. However, emotions are often harder to process than physical events. A burning rage, hate or guilt may well be harder to cope with than a burn to one’s arm, leg, or hand. An emotional cut to the bone may be less painful than a physical one. It may be said that the act does not transform the pain, but multiplies it. This in essence may be true, but one form of pain allows a man to ignore another. A pinch may allow a man to ignore the emotional pain of a nightmare. A small cut may allow ignorance of the bigger cut on one’s spirit or psyche.
There are widely varying and increasingly complex variations of motivation and cause of self-harm. They may include, but are absolutely and in no way limited to: self-harm as a coping or survival mechanism, self-harm as a tool to exercise control over one’s increasingly chaotic environment, and self-harm as an outer expression of inner emotional turmoil. To believe that cutting is simple is to nearly deny it altogether. Its essence is complicated. Stereotyping self-harm or self-harmers may well lead to opinions that will ostracize or further encourage the occurrence of self-harm. Since the motivation and causes of self-harm are undeniably complex, to attempt to brush this under a rock would be to diminish its importance, and to deny healing to those who need to understand it.