Self-Mutilation

  • Self Mutilation is defined as a deliberate, intentional injury to one’s own body that causes tissue damage or leaves marks for more than a few minutes.  Self mutilation is done to cope with an overwhelming or distressing situation.
  • Self-harm is rarely a suicidal act; however, it must be taken seriously because accidental deaths do occur.

Who Engages in Self-Injury?
  • About two million people in the U.S. are self-injurers.  Approximately 1% of the population has inflicted physical injury upon themselves at some time in their life as a way to cope with an overwhelming situation or feeling.
  • No One Is Immune.  Self-injury does not discriminate against race, culture, or socio-economic status.   
  • Females and Males.    Although some reference sites indicate that the people who engage in this type of addictive behavior are predominately female teenagers and young adults, both genders self-injure, ranging in age from 14 to 60.  
  • Those With Poor Coping Abilities.  There is consistent agreement that self-harm has more to do with having poor coping mechanisms than any other cause.
  • Victims of Child Molestation.  Child sexual molestation leads to emotional devastation which will live on in their lives for many years.  Sexual molestation can lead to self-mutilation, abuse of other people, drug addiction, intimacy issues, alcoholism, and becoming sexually active.  

Reasons for Self-Injury
  • Release Emotional Pain.  The act of self-mutilation usually occurs after an overwhelming or distressing experience and is a result of not having learned how to identify or express difficult feelings in a healthy way.  It may also be considered that the evidence of actual physical wounds serve to prove that the emotional pain is real.  Although the physical pain they experience may be the catalyst that releases the emotional pain, the relief they feel is temporary.
  • Regulate Strong Emotions.  Self-injury can regulate strong emotions. It can put a person who is at a high level of physiological arousal back to a baseline state.
  • Block Another Pain.  Deliberate self-harm can distract from emotional pain and stop feelings of numbness.
  • Express Anger or a Need for Help.  Self-inflicted violence is a way to express things that cannot be put into words such as anger, or the cry for help.
  • Feel Control Over Body.  Self-injurious behavior can provide a sense of control over ones body when they may feel powerless in other areas of life.
  • Prevent More Pain.  It is possible that the self-mutilator may imagine that hurting themselves will prevent something worse from happening.
  • Manipulate People.  The act can be used as a way to manipulate people into feeling guilty, make them care, or make them go away.
  • Punish Themselves.  Self punishment or self-hate may be involved.  Some people who self-injure have a childhood history of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. They may erroneously blame themselves for having been abused and this is a way of punishing themselves.
  • Calm Intense Emotions.  Self-abuse can also be a self-soothing behavior for someone who does not have other means to calm intense emotions. Self-injury followed by tending to one’s own wounds is a way to express self-care and be self-nurturing for someone who never learned how to do that in a more direct way.

Types of Self-Injury
  • Cutting - involves making cuts or scratches on your body with any sharp object, including knives, needles, razor blades or even fingernails. The arms, legs and front of the torso are most commonly cut, because they are easily reached and easily hidden under clothing
  • Branding – burning self with a hot object
  • Friction burn – rubbing a pencil eraser on your skin.  
  • Picking at skin or re-opening wounds (dermatillomania) - is an impulse control disorder characterized by the repeated urge to pick at one's own skin, often to the extent that damage is caused which relieves stress or is gratifying
  • Hair-pulling (trichotillomania) – is an impulse control disorder which at times seems to resemble a habit, an addiction, or an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The person has an irresistible urge to pull out hair from any part of their body. Hair pulling from the scalp often leaves patchy bald spots on their head which they hide by wearing hats, scarves and wigs.
  • Hitting - with hammer or other object.
  • Bone breaking, Punching, Head-banging - more often seen with autism or severe mental retardation.  
  • Multiple piercing or tattooing - may also be a type of self-injury, especially if pain or stress relief is a factor
  • Drinking harmful chemicals


Common Traits of People Who Self-Injure:
  • Expressions of anger were discouraged while growing up.
  • They have co-existing problems with obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse or eating disorders.
  • They lack the necessary skills to express strong emotions in a healthy way. 
  • They have a limited social support network.   


Helping Those who Self-Mutilate  
  • Understand that self-harming behavior is an attempt to maintain a certain amount of control which in and of itself is a way of self-soothing.
  • Let the person know that you care about them and are available to listen.
  • Encourage expressions of emotions, including anger.
  • Spend time doing enjoyable activities together.
  • Offer to help them find a therapist or support group.
  • Don’t make judgmental comments or tell the person to stop the self-harming behavior – people who feel worthless and powerless are even more likely to self-injure.
  • If your child is self-injuring, prepare yourself to address the difficulties in your family. Start with expressing feelings, which is a common factor in self-injury – this is not about blame, but rather about learning new ways of dealing with family interactions and communications which can help the entire family.

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