Self-Mutilation: The Truth Behind the Shame

self-mutilation: the truth behind the shame

self-muti'lationn. mutilation of oneself, esp. as a symptom of mental disturbances E17


What's the cause of self-injury, self-mutilation? Who suffers from self-injury and how to treat it?Self-mutilation, or self-injury as I and many others prefer to call it, is the deliberate damaging of body tissue without conscious intent to commit suicide. Just like with eating disorders, self-injury is used as a coping mechanism in life. Whatever pain is inside of the person, whether it be from family problems, sexual or physical abuse, or emotional neglect, the feelings are unbearable and can only be released or "forgotten about" through the pain that comes from injuring one's self. The prevalence of self-injury is unknown because many cases go unseen and untreated, but it has been estimated that about 750 per 100,000 persons per year have problems with self-injury. (Rates of 34% and 40.5% have been reported for people diagnosed as having multiple personality disorder and bulimia.) Self-injury usually begins in late childhood and early adolescence, and although for some it becomes a chronic problem, most self-mutilators do not continue the behavior after 10-15 years. However, self-injury can be a chronic problem if the situation that triggers the victim to cut or hurt themselves continues to stay in their lives.


Common suffers of self-injury are abuse survivors, eating disorder sufferers, and a smaller group suffers from substance abuse and kleptomania. In the home of someone who hurts themselves often there is violence with an inhibition of verbal expression of anger, and/or a stormy parental relationship along with neglect or a lack of emotional warmth expressed by the parents. Sometimes there is the loss of a parent through death or divorce, or parental depression or alcoholism. Often the person who hurts themselves has rapid mood swings and suffers from some sort of depression, possibly even Bipolar Disorder. Perfectionistic tendencies and a dislike of the body/body shape are both characteristic of someone who is prone to self-injuring. When it appears that the family is in good shape but yet a child still self-injures, perfectionism and the feelings of low or non-existent self-worth are the next possible explanations as to what triggers it.

It has been proposed that children who don't receive adequate protection and are abused, violated, or neglected, fail to learn how to protect themselves. They then re-enact their abuse and lack of protection through a variety of self-harming behaviors and this is how self-mutilation can begin. The person who self-injures experiences an inability to tolerate intense feelings and often has trouble expressing emotional needs or experiences, which is where the injury comes in to help "end" or lessen the stress. Injuring one's self can be looked at as a means of communicating anger and distress to other people when there are no other ways.


For some, seeing the blood from cuts gives them an odd sense of well-being and strength - the same feelings that were stripped away from them at some point in their life. A self-injurer may injure themselves as a way of empowering themselves, as well. The person feels strong and in control by enduring the pain that they inflict on themselves.

On the flip side, a self-injurer may feel very unworthy and meek, and self-injury can be used as a means of punishment. This frequently is the motive with victims of eating disorders, as in both cases the feelings of unworthiness are there. Another theory is that the victim is constantly told that they are beautiful and that they will attract a lot of boys (girls if it is a male) and the person becomes afraid of being raped (possibly again) or victimized, so they create scars to hopefully scare away anyone who tries to come in contact with them.

    Baby's got a problem
    Tries so hard to hide
    Got to keep it on the surface
    because everything else is dead on the other side-NIN't.stop

Self-injury soon becomes an addiction and extremely hard to stop. Cutting, burning, or performing any other number of harming acts upon the body relieves, very quickly, unbearable pain and also releases the body's own narcotics called the endogenous opiates. Just like with someone binging but not purging, prolonging a self-injurer from hurting themselves can cause them to experience symptoms such as agitation, paranoia, and irritability. Because of this, it is too hard in the beginning for any self-injurer to stop, at least immediately.


As I mentioned up at the top, for most people the self-injuring behavior lasts about 10-15 years and then dies out, but this cannot be an excuse to not get help! Within those 10-15 years the emotions causing you or someone you know to injure themselves could get even more severe and frequent and lead to suicide attempts and cause other disorders, like an eating disorder, to get worse. You can also cause yourself more harm than intended from infection. Some people use rusty razor blades or dirty 'self-harm materials' to hurt themselves which carry tons and tons of germs that seep into the body. For someone with bulimia or anorexia this can easily cause their immune system to weaken even more and have the inability to fight off bacteria and viruses as fast as before the onset of their problem(s), leaving the victim to be open to the problem of getting sick and not recovering for practically months!

Just as with an eating disorder, the self-injurer should be treated ALONG WITH treatment for the eating disorder. There are self-help techniques and centers out there for sufferers of this demon, although it is always up to you to WANT to stop and to learn different ways of dealing with your emotions. You must find out, in treatment and on your own, why you hurt yourself and then what triggers you to hurt yourself. Stay away from the triggers as much as you can, and also be prepared to distance yourself with healthy activities when the temptation to harm comes. Realize that replacing pain with another form of pain is not recovery, nor does it help you! You will always have the same empty and alone feeling the more and more you do this, and you DESERVE to not have to put up with any more abuse.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 16). Self-Mutilation: The Truth Behind the Shame, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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