Gay & Lesbian Services of Western New York

What can I do about cutting (or other forms of self-injury)?

Self injurious behavior is deliberate, impulsive (urge driven), non-lethal harming of one’s own body. It includes cutting, scratching, picking or interfering with wound healing, burning, punching self or objects, infecting oneself, inserting objects into bodily openings to inflict pain, bruising or breaking bones, some forms of hair pulling and other forms of bodily hurt and harm.


A much higher number of girls than boys self injure. Usually it starts in early teens and can last for some into adulthood and longer without treatment. Teens who do this to themselves often have low self esteem and are/were discouraged from expressing or even feeling emotion(“You don’t feel that way”), particularly sadness or anger. Self injurers commonly report feeling empty inside, over or under stimulated, lonely, not understood and fearful of intimate relationships and adult responsibilities.


Self injury may start accidentally or as a group or personal “test” of endurance and “control” but for some can quickly lead to a compulsive habit as a way to cope with or relieve painful or hard to express emotion. It is a secret activity that initially gives a feeling of “control, being alive” but soon becomes a self destructive cycle that feels out of control. I have seen clients who cut as teens and now as adults do not wear shorts or short selves; who have scaring that forever binds them to this confusing period in their lives producing embarrassment and lowered self esteem.


Three of the many tasks of adolescence are to learn to regulate and manage emotions, learn to form emotionally intimate relationships and, learn where and how to fit comfortably into society by understanding your real strengths and limits. All of these tasks and growth are compromised by this or other compulsive or addictive behavior (such as an eating disorder or drug use) because the behavior results in secretiveness, often increases isolation and severely limits the learning of other ways of coping and reducing stress and discharging tension. It can become a habitual one-way fits all form of trying to solve problems and severely reduce or interfere with your ability to find other coping mechanisms.


While a combination of therapies and sometimes medication for depression or OCD is the best solution to this problem there are things that you can do for yourself to help regain control. Just as you decide to self injure you can decide to commit to a life without scars and bruises. You can decide to not injure this moment and instead do something else to deal with what you are experiencing. You can set limits on self harm and take responsibility for it. You can learn basic first aid for treating you injuries. You can talk with someone you trust and break the cycle of secrecy and diminish its power. Since part of why self injury “works” to reduce tension is that it produces very focused sensation that you “control” than you can learn by experience to replace it with intense experience that does not produce bodily injury, like squeezing ice, biting into something strongly flavored (lemon, lime, grapefruit, hot pepper, ginger root), snap a rubber band on your wrist or stick fingers into ice cream for a few minutes. These may hurt but they won’t leave scars, you won’t have to explain it later on and you won’t have to feel guilty.

Try to match what you do to how you feel in the moment. If you are angry, frustrated or restless try cutting an empty plastic soda bottle or heavy cardboard. Rant at the thing you are cutting if you can; move your body, go for a run, stomp in place, turn up the music and dance. If you are sad or unhappy do something slow and soothing like take a warm bath with bath oil, burn sweet incense or listen to soothing music. Learning to self sooth in constructive ways is a huge resource in life. Once years ago when I was depressed over a loss in my life I made a “sad tape” of music that moved me and I gave myself permission to be alone and cry when I listened to it. Gradually I listened to it less and less until I didn’t listen to it at all. I still have that tape. If you are feeling unreal or depersonalized try the sharp sensation methods mentioned above like the rubber band, biting something sour or stomping. If you want to see blood try marking on yourself or a picture of yourself with a red non-permanent felt-tip marker.

There are some good websites for sufferers of self injurious behavior. Use a search engine like and type in teen cutting. You will find information, helpful ideas and resources as well as stories of famous and not famous people who have dealt with this in there lives. Turning emotional scars into physical ones doesn’t in the long run solve the emotional problem and in the end only complicates things further.


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