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Cutting: Self Destruction Or Self Protection? - 8/13/2010

There is a problem that is prevalent among disturbed teenage girls.  It’s called “cutting” and it desperately needs to be understood by their parents, in order for them to deal more adequately with daughters who push them away, but require support, understanding and tough love.  

Cathy’s parents thought it was just another phase she was going through.  This time, it was baggy clothes, long sleeves and being entirely covered up.  She had always engaged in funky dressing, so they initially took little notice.  But, after a while, something seemed drastically amiss.  As a result, her mother became far more observant of Cathy’s behavior.  Then, one morning when she entered Cathy’s bedroom, to her horror, she saw cuts up and down Cathy’s forearms.  They were ragged, uneven and in various stages of healing.  It was evident that the cutting had been going on for a long time.  

That was when I first met Cathy.  She was angry over having to be at my office and stated, “therapy is a bunch of b.s.”.  After declaring her independence, she settled down and answered some questions.  She said the cuts were just playing with herself out of  boredom and, despite what her parents thought, in no way indicated she wanted to commit suicide.  She was mildly defiant, maintained emotional distance and said, “If they force me to return, I won’t speak at all.”  

Sadly, Cathy is only one of many young ladies I’ve seen with similar symptoms and attitudes.  They were all troubled individuals who couldn’t fully express or recognize what it was that bothered them.  Most of them complained about parents and school, express disdain for classmates and a contempt for “the establishment”.   They had few friends, except for  peers who also demonstrated “goth” behavior and shared their desire to cut.  To a great extent, Cathy’s words were accurate.  She doesn’t believe she has a problem.  Her dress, the cutting behavior and her friends are a support group that enables her to feel that she isn’t alone and nothing is wrong with her.  The group, however, provides no insights or cures.  Instead, the support she receives only reinforces her behavior and dress.  

More importantly,  Cathy is also correct when she indicates that her cutting has nothing to do with  suicidal behavior.  In fact, it’s quite the contrary.   It is unconsciously designed to alleviate pain, not create it.  It also serves as an attempt to help her feel something.  It may not seem so on the surface, but let me give you an example that might help you to understand her logic, as well as her behavior.  Some time ago, my wife looked at me after I left the shower and asked, “What happened to your leg?  It looks horrible. It’s black, purple and red all the way down your thigh.”  I looked and, to my amazement, there was a bruise that was as ugly as she stated.  “What happened?”  “I have no idea”, I answered.  “You couldn’t injure yourself that badly without knowing.”  Contrary to her statement, I had the bruise, but I had no awareness of its origin.  

Several days later, while sitting in my office, I suddenly recalled how the bruise occurred.  That  night, I told my wife.  Two days prior to her observation, I had gone to the dentist.  She indicated  that I needed four or five shots to deaden the area she was going to work on.  You should know, I’m kind of a sissy when it comes to needles, so when she brought out the hypodermics, I placed my right hand on the inside of my thigh and, with all my strength, I squeezed until the pain from the pressure I applied exceeded the pain from the needles.  You see, it doesn’t work unless the diversion is greater than what it is you’re attempting to obscure.  No wonder the inside of my thigh was so badly bruised.  The important question is, however, why was this  pain preferable to the hurt from the needles?  The answer is blatantly apparent.  I was in control of the pain I created.  I could stop it, or stand it as long as I needed to.  Conversely, the dentist was in charge of the pain from the needles.  

Let’s apply that explanation to youngsters who cut themselves.  First, it’s apparent that they’re in control of that pain.  Although it’s hurtful, it’s desirable, i.e., preferable to the vague, emotional pain they experience that they don’t necessarily understand, can’t adequately define or rid themselves of.  Generally speaking, these young ladies attempt to cope with their pain by numbing themselves to it.  The numbing agent can be emotional in nature, or drugs or alcohol.  It is their form of “escape”.  The problem is, it doesn’t just numb the pain, it numbs them to everything.  The cutting, as illogical as it may seem, is their attempt to gain some modicum of feelings, even if it’s painful.  For youngsters like Cathy, the cutting also becomes addictive in nature, similar to drugs or alcohol.  Because of its addictive nature, the path toward a healthy existence is extremely difficult for these youngsters.   Thus, they have to not only deal with their addiction, they have to give up control in order to be able to trust or lean on someone.  Without doing so, they’re unable to take advantage of any help that’s available.   For those reasons, they almost always have to get worse to get better, i.e., they have to reach a point where they can recognize that the pain they experience doesn’t come from their external world, or the people in it.  They must recognize that their pain results from their negative self perception, their dislike of who and what they are, their feeling that they’re not worthwhile, or okay and their belief that  they don’t deserve the space they occupy, the air they breathe, or the love they desperately desire.  

If you are a parent, or know a child similar to Cathy, please hang in there, assure them you’ll be there, reaffirm them of your love, offer them treatment, but counter their behaviors with tough love, i.e., consequences and limits.

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