Self-Injury Part 2 – What Self-Injury Is and Isn’t

Disclaimer – I write “Leadership Moments” for the volunteers at my church who work in the youth ministry. Each Leadership Moment is meant to equip the everyday youth worker with the knowledge and skills they need to help teens as best as they can. Because these articles are for people I know personally and meant for my own church and city context, they may not always be relevant to the wider public. However I put them here for anyone who might benefit from their content.

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[This is part 2 of a series summarizing the book “Hope and Healing For Kids Who Cut” by Marv Penner.]

It is important that we have an accurate understand of what self-injury actually is. First, let’s dispel some of the common myths about self-injury. Here is a list of what self-injury is NOT:

  • It is not just a fad. The wrong way to think of self-injury is that it is merely a passing trend that will fade with time. The statistics would prove otherwise. It is not fading over time but rather becoming increasingly common and being portrayed as normal in the media. We cannot believe it will simply go away on its own. It won’t.
  • It is not an extreme form of body modification. Tattoos and body pierces are pretty popular these days. But this is not the same as self-injury. Tattoos and body piercing are artistic and stylistic in nature, and most people who have these display them proudly. However, self-injury is more like therapy than art, and most injurers hide their marks in shame.
  • It is not a suicide attempt. At least, not yet. Some self-injurers will spiral down into depression and attempt suicide. But self-injury is actually much different. The point of self-injury is to NOT give up hope. The self-injurer is hoping their wounds will help them escape the pain they feel and want to live.
  • It is not demon-possession. In the Bible there is at least two occasions (1 Kings 18 and Mark 5) where there is definitely demonic activity leading to self-injury. However, this does not mean that every person who cuts is demon-possessed. Certainly they are under Satan attack, but we should not assume that an exorcism is required for their healing.
  • It is not just an attempt to get attention. True, some injurers want attention. They are craving for love and acceptance. They just want someone to notice them! But self-injury is more than that. Typically adults respond to obvious cries for attention by withholding attention, thinking they will break the cycle of neediness. This is a dangerous thing to do with someone who is hurting themselves.
  • It is not reckless behaviour. (This point is not in the book). I would add that a teen who is wild and willing to try crazy stunts, whether it be on a bike or skateboard or jumping off high places, or doing things like are shown in the “Jackass” videos, are not self-injuring teens. At least, they are not injuring themselves on purpose the same way a teen who cuts is, though their recklessness can be a sign of masking pain too.

So if that is what self-injury is NOT, what exactly IS it? Marv defines it in simple terms:

Self-injury is an attempt to alter one’s emotional state by inflicting physical harm on one’s own body without the intention of committing suicide. Self-injurers seek to change how they feel by hurting themselves.

Self-injury can take on a variety of forms.

  • Cutting. This is the most common form of self-injury, where a person cuts themself with a sharp object. Common cutting places are on the arms (especially the non-dominant arm), legs, and sides. Often cuts are made in places easy to cover with clothing.
  • Carving. This is a variation of cutting where a person cuts a specific image or word into their skin. Usually the word or image has significant meaning to the cutter that is related to their own identity (words like “ugly”, “worthless”, and “loser” are common).
  • Burning. A self-injurer may choose to burn their skin instead of cutting it. It can be done of the stove, near a furnace, or with a lighter. Sometimes an injurer will heat a metal object with a lighter and then press it onto their skin.
  • Bruising. Still another form of self-injury is inflicting pain on the body by any means possible. This can be by hitting oneself with an object or even their own fists.
  • Branding. Branding is a form of burning similar to carving in that the person brands their skin with sometime to mark their identity or express what they are feeling.
  • Refusal to heal. Many self-injurers interfere with wounds that are healing. They do this because as long as the wound is “active”, it still helps them to feel the relief they are seeking.

In the next post we will learn how to recognize the common signs of self-injury.

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