The Cutting Edge – Self-Injury and Mutilation: Pleasure Through Pain
by Karen Koch
Jul 8, 2008
For most people, physical discomfort is something that we shy away from. The idea of physically harming oneself seems repulsive and disturbing - but for some it is normal.
According to researchers, almost 5% of the population has inflicted harm upon themselves in order to deal with psychological difficulties. Other studies have shown that 1 in 10 teens will purposefully injure themselves. The overwhelming majority of self-injurers are young women between the ages of 13 and 30, but the number of young men causing self-harm is increasing.
Self-harm is not a new behaviour. Records as far back as the Greeks show that self-harm has been done by both men and women throughout history. The human psyche does in many ways see physical pain as a release from psychological turmoil and a way of re-exerting one's control over the world.
What is self-injury?
Self-injury is any behaviour that harms the person but that is not meant as an act of suicide. The act is carried out to cause physical pain rather than death.
Commonly such behaviours include scratching or tearing at the skin. Making superficial cuts in the forearm or elsewhere is also common. Self-injury can also include:
- Punching, hitting and scratching
- Choking, constricting of the airway
- Self-biting of hands, limbs, tongue, lips, or arms
- Picking at wounds, ulceration, or sutures
- Burning, including cigarette burns, and self-incendiarism (as well as eraser burns)
- Stabbing self with wire, pins, needles, nails, staples, pens, or hair accessories
- Ingesting corrosive chemicals, batteries, or pins
There are examples in history of people who have removed eyeballs, limbs and other extreme cases. These account for a very small minority of self-injury and are usually associated with psychotic conditions or religious cults.
Many parents worry that a child who undergoes tattoos or multiple body piercing may be displaying self-mutilating behaviour. This is difficult to judge and depends entirely on the nature of the person. Many people view tattoos, body piercing and other culturally specific behaviours as acceptable, even attractive. Self-mutilation has to be socially and culturally unacceptable in order to be seen as "abnormal".
It seems impossible to understand that anyone could do himself harm. Or does it? Someone who injures himself often describes the "internal pain" as being so poignant, that nothing less than physical pain could possibly express or lessen it.
The core of most self-harming behaviour is most often ongoing and unresolved psychological issues such as emotional distress, abuse, low self-esteem and anxiety. The young man or woman feels overwhelmed by emotions and physical harm provides relief from the mental anguish.
The behaviour itself may be conscious or unconscious. Related psychological conditions often overlap and co-exist. These may include borderline personality disorder and eating disorders.
Self-harm is a trait of a condition known as "borderline personality disorder". Not everyone who practices self-harm has this condition, but many do. This condition is brought about by a combination of environmental factors (emotional, sexual or physical abuse being potential triggers) and genetic factors (often children have family members with the same condition). A deep sense of emptiness, unease and instability tend to characterise those who are diagnosed.
Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulaemia may occur simultaneously and reflect the same unresolved emotional conflicts, disregard for self and low self-esteem. It makes sense that someone who is willing to harm himself physically, expresses the same emotions through food and weight control. Almost 95% of those who perform self-injury also have an eating disorder.
There are also certain (rare) inherited medical conditions in which children display self-harming behaviour. These include Lesch-Nyhan, deLange, and Tourette's syndrome. While not often a cause, they do suggest a biological chemical cause for self-harming behaviour.
The cause of self-harm remains extremely personal and private. No single reason can be uniformly applied to those who display this behaviour. A qualified therapist, counsellor or the sufferer himself or herself are the only people who can really know what causes the condition.
If you or someone you know suffers from self mutilation, contact your doctor or counselling services in your area. The condition can be overcome and controlled with counselling, treatment and support.