What makes self harm so bad? *PT*

Many mental health professionals I’ve come across are adamant that cutting is an unhealthy, terrible coping mechanism and a behaviour that needs to be ceased. The psychiatrist I saw whilst I was inpatient suggested snapping a rubber band against my wrist, or squeezing an ice cube in my fist instead. The social worker who went through the DBT handout with me suggested the rubber band method too. So did my school counsellor in Year 12. Besides finding distraction techniques/alternatives such as these rather condescending, both these methods still use pain to deal with overwhelming feelings, or whatever other reason people self harm. So what’s the point? Might as well cut.

Okay, so their justification is that it doesn’t break the skin and doesn’t pose the same dangers that cutting does. I can see their viewpoint relating to individuals who do cut deep enough so that they need sutures and are in danger of severing a vein, artery or nerve. In my case though, the event of that occurring is very unlikely. I’m coming up to seven years of cutting this year. Yeah okay, so I have some pretty nasty scars on my thighs, probably between two to three hundred, most of which are dark purplish/red. As a consequence I can’t wear anything shorter than knee length, but in the big scheme of things, it’s not that big a deal. When I do cut, yeah, it breaks the skin, it bleeds a bit, but it’s always superficial and never ever near the depth where sutures would be required. I’m too much of a wuss for that.

So keeping that in mind, I don’t understand why it’s so bad and why I should stop. Between cutting or overdosing or even attempting to take my own life, surely cutting is the lesser of evils?

What if instead of engaging in self harming behaviours, I had taken up, say…smoking? Smoking is socially acceptable. Perhaps less so than in the past, as we’ve become more educated, but still relatively acceptable. You see people smoking in public, out on the streets, and you don’t think all that much of it. Someone go out on the streets and cut in public however, and you’d get a very different reaction. Why? Smokers are harming themselves. When I look at it, smokers are at even greater risk of chronic health issues than I am from cutting myself. There’s the risk of lung cancer, emphysema…. When I examine cadavers in my human biology labs, smoker’s lungs are blackened from the inhalation of the toxins.

My father smokes. And I cut. Yet I’m the one who’s viewed as doing something harmful/shameful/crazy that needs to be stopped, while it’s quite alright for my father to be slowly shortening his life span with those cancer sticks.

So why is it so bad for me to be cutting myself? Everyone has their ways of coping. Self harm just happens to be mine.

18 thoughts on “What makes self harm so bad? *PT*

  1. i can totally understand where you are coming from. i think the problem for me is everything that comes with the cutting. it;s a release for as short time & then i feel much worse. worthless,guilty,pathetic, which lowers my mood & leads to thoughts of self harm. vicious circle. i know it’s different for everyone. you may not feel these things.
    the only other thing i would say is that i cut for around 6yrs before i got deep. i don’t know how it happened or what changed. it just did. it can happen ,so pls be careful.

  2. I disagree with the part about smoking being socially acceptable. (Where I live, cigarettes are taxed heavily and smoking versus non-smoking common areas are clearly delineated to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke.) The person who cuts himself in public might incite a louder public outcry than the one who smokes, but that’s only because we have grown indifferent to smoking as a society. No one said it’s alright to smoke, but it’s a sad truth that the tobacco industry generates a huge profit and governments the world over are quick to capitalise on that.

    What makes self-harm bad? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this quote in Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted tries: “But then she was suddenly gripped, she said, by a sudden sense that what she was doing was wrong. Not wrong in the sense of sinful, but wrong in a human sense – a crime against nature, the body, the soul, the self.”

    I seem to have lost my train of thought along the way. I guess the point I wanted to make is that while cutting IS the lesser of evils, it’s not either or.


  3. I struggled with that question for years as well. I self harmed severely for over a decade, and I never understood what was so bad about it. It’s only now that I’ve been SI-free for three years (well, with two very short lapses – not bad at all!) that I *get* it. Self harm doesn’t just cause physical damage, it changes your brain chemistry too. Right after I did it I always felt like I’d swallowed a load of valium, and in the long term I became addicted to it. And behaviourally speaking, the more you cut to cope with things, the less you can actually cope with without cutting, if that makes sense. Now I don’t self harm anymore my mood is a lot more stable and my ability to tolerate anxiety and distress is MUCH higher. I always thought it was helping me cope, when in reality it was messing me up even more.

  4. Very thought provoking! I completely agree with what you have said. I have actually found a few professionals who agree with self harm as long as you are being “careful” and hygeinic etc. But most of them are against it. Like you i cut my thighs and they are superficial to the point of bleeding quite abit but needing no medical attention. I see that as significantly less harmful than coping by smoking/drinking/taking drugs… for starters its considerably cheaper and all damage is superficial rather than damaging organs potentially beyond repair. What you said about how cutting in public would be percieved is very interesting. I think it would be a very good social experiment if anybody ever did it. To see how people would react.

  5. I actually think that self harm is not good. I self harmed for years, probably 15 years and the more I did it, the more I wanted to do it and the worse it got. I also learnt some very bad techniques in hospital from the other patients. So I learnt how to self harm to the point of many stitches. Initially though I felt the way you do and I have hundreds of scars on my arms. One thing for you to ponder, if it is as unharmful as you say, why do you cover it up if you don’t think it’s a bad thing? My scars are not covered but I know that when I have been at work a few times I have been embarrased by them when they have been noticed. Please be careful, when you lose the high from the smaller cuts, you may go deeper. It’s like a drug, you can never get enough, until you stop and find other ways. I also don’t agree with any of the alternatives, like ice or rubber bands because it’s still self harm.

  6. I had this exact conversation with a friend the other day. And I completely agree with you. But like all the other commenters said though, it eventually gets worse. Once I cut so deep I ended up with 15 stitches in my leg and a scar that was 4 inches long and 1 inch wide, all because I just wanted to see more blood. Well I did.

    On top of that it makes you feel crazy because society thinks it’s crazy. The scars cause a feeling of isolation from others. Feeling isolated is a big predicator of depression. So while it’s exhilarating and comforting, it’s not good. Easy for me to say, but I have been self harming quite regularly. So I completely understand your dilemma.

    Take Care…

  7. You know, a lot of CBT methods would be against the elastic band method. I was told that it just reinforces pain as punishment for behaviour. In that sense, I agree, cutting is pretty much the same.

    I think it’s probably seen as worse because it’s such a visible example of the pain we feel. Plus, a lot of people don’t understand the reasoning behind cutting and the fact that it is not a suicide attempt or gesture.

    It’s a way of coping. Sure, it sucks, but so does a lot of other stuff too.

  8. I’d written a meandering, exploratory response to this, but it’s needlessly long, and I’m sure I’d get bollocked for it. Basically, I agree with you.

  9. I have had the same thoughts as you. I used to cut (the last time I did it was over the summer). However it was never my favorite coping skill– I preferred starvation. But I think one thing that makes cutting “bad” is that it can quickly escalate to more dangerous behaviors.

    Wishing you well,

  10. Your post is incredibly thought provoking and well written. I agree that cutting in the street would create a commotion whereas smoking wouldn’t but doctors and medical professionals will spend a fair bit of time trying to get people to cease and discourage smoking these days due to the health problems associated with it, as they would with cutting. I think the issue with cutting is that it represents distress, and whilst slapping rubberbands and drawing on your arm in red pen (as suggested to me) really don’t make all that much sense as they aren’t solving the problem, they need to be addressing the reasons behind needing to do it. In my opinion, not that most people would probably agree, the issue isn’t really the cutting it is more the pain that exists behind it. They need to be addressing that rather than just saying “cutting is bad”.

  11. (OK, the following is partly mental masturbation fueled by years of studying literature. Take what you like, and leave the rest.)

    Self-harm certainly has its downsides, but I’ve always compared it to binge drinking, which is still given a pass for youngsters who are “experimenting” and/or “under peer pressure” and/or “learning to become men.” “I did the same thing in high school/college,” the parents say. But it has about the same incidence of major consequences as self-harm, and about the same degree of instant gratification/relief. They can both potentially lead to addiction. They both have that regressive, atavistic appeal / repulsion, as both scarification/bleeding and drugs/alcohol were used in all primitive cultures, contained by ritual (which they’re not anymore, just allowed to roam wild and free and confused like the “kids” who take them on). The difference that nobody seems to care about is that cutting causes much less harm to others and to society as a whole than binge drinking (or smoking, for that matter). The difference that might explain self-harm’s status as the more “horrifying” of the two is that when the inside comes outside (blood, in this case, but also see skeletons, guts, even public sex, to an extent), people are freaked out. Existential and Unconscious rules of reality have been violated. Our mortality stands stark in the middle of our living years. (that last doesn’t apply to public sex, I guess.) (Anyone familiar with Freud’s notion of The Uncanny?)

    As a nurse, I have to say that any cut, not just deep ones, significantly raise the risk of infection, so keep it clean. As a cutter, I always have some rubbing alcohol and paper towels around toward that goal. (My friend who came to my aid on New Year’s Day, also a nurse, insisted on wrapping the wounds in sterile gauze, which is probably ideal, but takes too much energy for me after I cut.) As a recovering alcoholic who relapsed for a month and got sober again less than a month ago, I have to say, in the long term, recovery from all these destructive coping mechanisms is really the goal, to live free of all this shit. (Why? What’s on the other side? I don’t know yet. I’m just faking it right now.)

    The End.

  12. I agree to some degree, but look at those with substance abuse they are often ostorcized(spelled wrong I know) also. Alcohol is a funny thing because some see it as socially acceptable same as somoking and even some drugs. But as always the things that are missunderstood by most people are considered “bad.”

  13. I’ve not come across your blog (via serialinsomniac), but I like the cut of your jib.
    Katie’s anti comments were thought-provoking, but if you’re 7 years and it’s not progressing, it sounds under control. I’m able to wait until my skin has healed enough for cutting to feel genuinely satisfying. little cuts generally heal over enough within a few hours (and sucking probably is antiseptic?).
    And even more serious stuff, *where it’s an alternative to suicide*, is, in my view, a good thing. It’s impossible to get satisfactory medical help in a crisis so the only real alternative I’ve found is to burn quite deeply, or to use a sharp thing in places where the sun don’t shine. Both are things the whitecoats don’t like, but then, if they can’t provide any real alternative then you do what helps.

  14. I don’t know what the answer for you is, but a teenage girl I knew progressed to combining cutting with smashing her fist through glass panes…very angry…and would pull her fist back through the glass intentionally scraping the edges. Almost died from cutting an artery…damaged tendons and can’t use her hand right. Hopefully the message is quit while you’re ahead. I know it’s hard, but you have your skill with words on your side. It’s a gift. You write a great blog. There’s more you can do!

  15. Pingback: Why is Self-Harm Bad? » Confessions of a Serial Insomniac

  16. I self harm, or cut, too. I’ve started recently but when my best friend found out, she freaked and wanted me to stop. So I asked the exact same question. Why should I stop? I haven’t stopped because, I have no other way of expressing my feelings. Its the only way to calm me down. By having a small blood flow caused by me on purpose.

  17. I find myself asking this question sometimes. I guess the only real answer I have come up with is that it’s unhealthy. It’s an unhealthy habit formed as a result of being unhealthy.
    Sometimes I think it isn’t the cutting itself that is the bad thing. The bad thing is that you’re feeling intense emotions that you don’t know how to deal with. People who self harm often don’t seek help. It turns into this big unhealthy cycle that just keeps getting worse.
    People want you to stop cutting..sort of because they want you to stop feeling whatever way it is that makes you cut. Now, it’s kind of impossible to “stop feeling,” but it is possible to not feel them as intensely. Depression is bad, because it’s something that hinders your life and it’s fixable for the most part. I think therapists say using the rubber band is a better alternative because it isn’t as extreme and therefore is easier to step down from. Kinda just going down the steps until you’re “where you should be.” If you’re getting the help you need and taking medication (if necessary), you should get “better.” Meaning you can better deal with emotions and events that might trigger certain feelings. I’ve found that since I stopped cutting my depression and anger aren’t as “sharp”- if something upset me, that’s all I could focus on. It brought me physical pain. I would internalize the situation. If my friend did something that upset me it was because they didn’t like me or they don’t care about me or that I deserved it. I couldn’t pass through it. So I had to cut to help me through it. Cutting only reinforces that thought process/behavior. If you keep cutting, your emotions will always be extreme and intolerable.
    The desired end result is for you to be a fully functioning (or as much as possible) person who can get upset about something and then get over it- not necessarily immediately, but in general. To get there, you’d have to stop cutting.
    Now there isn’t anything that can “replace” cutting in the sense that it’ll alleviate the pain as quickly and easily, but there are better things you could do. Generally these things are just distractions at first, they don’t ACTUALLY relieve your emotional distress. Depends on what you do. Journaling can help relieve your distress because you’re getting your emotions out. I chose to paint or read. Painting is relaxing and can be cathartic. Otherwise it’s just a way to distract you from your intense emotion until the desire to cut passes. As you do this over time, the desire to cut decreases. Eventually you won’t even think of cutting when you get depressed. That’s crazy to imagine, but believe me it’s true.

    Another reason cutting is bad is because of how easily it escalates. It’s addictive. It releases adrenaline and relaxes you and you feel all fine and dandy afterwards. So every time you feel intense emotions, you cut. But then you start to find that even little things are becoming harder to handle so you start cutting over small things. So you end up cutting as a result of pretty much anything. Cutting can easily get way out of hand. There were many, many times I accidentally cut to deep and even freaked myself out. There were other times I would cut and think “no, you can do better than that” and then cut deeper.
    My cutting got so bad that I was doing it when I was bored. And when I actually had a “reason” to cut, I’d start “tweaking” so to speak. The bad emotions would just get worse and worse and I’d get anxious and angry until I was able to cut. And if I could cut for whatever reason I’d end up having severe panic attacks.

    I was hospitalized 8 months ago and haven’t cut since then. Not cutting has made me a happier person. The bad emotions don’t feel as extreme, as horrible as they did before. Triggering events are easier to handle. THAT’S why people want you to stop cutting. So you can get to a place where you can actually feel things and deal with them and not have to hurt yourself or do anything, really, to help you.

    Sorry if this is repetitive and/or not cohesive, I lost my train of thought a few times. I mostly hope this answered your question, even just a little.

  18. i feel the exact same, ive been using the same argument ever since i first started and they still say ‘no its bad’. Personally i’m not using cutting to cope with things (i may be subconsiously, but I honestly don’t know), I do it mainly because I can and its entertaining. Blood and pain are things i find to be pure and beautiful (which i know isnt a good viewpoint) so yeah i feel you.

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