Self-Injury Part 5 – The Addictive Nature of Self-Injury

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 5 of a series summarizing the book “Hope and Healing For Kids Who Cut” by Marv Penner.]

When people think of addictions, there are certain things that usually come to mind: alcohol, drugs/cigarettes, caffeine, sex, food, technology etc. What many people don’t think of is self-injury. Yet there are countless people who struggle with self-injury as just that – an addiction. It’s not that these people won’t stop, it’s that they can’t. Their behaviour has morphed from a one-time experiment with self-injury into a full blown cycle that they can’t seem to break.

Self-injury becomes an addiction the same way most other addictions form. An individual has negative emotions that they wish to get rid of. This may be from a bad experience, a tragedy, or a negative self-identity (see previous posts on why teens self-injure), and so they set about looking for emotional relief. Self-injury is one method of relief. It temporarily dulls the negative emotion and provides the escape that person is looking for. But the key here is that the solution is only temporary.

Once the high of a self-injurous episode wears off (and it always does), the person finds their mood goes right back to where it was before. Sometimes, it is even worse, because there is additional guilt and shame added knowing they are hurting themselves. In response to this, they are in need of another fix, which means another episode of self-injuring. This goes on and on until it spins completely out of control into a full-blown addiction.

Over time, the relief that self-injury provides becomes less and less effective, and so the self-injurer is left to look for new options. Often they injure more frequently or more severely. Other times they turn to different methods of relief and form new addictions. Sometimes, they give up and attempt suicide.

Before we can help a self-injurer, it is important for us to understand why they do what they do. It can be very frustrating when we expect them to be able to stop right away but find that our expectations aren’t met. We need to be patient and realize we could be dealing with a serious addiction.

One other important thing is to know is that it is not our responsibility to break an addiction. While we may want to help, we need to recognize that we don’t have the power to break addictions. Only Jesus has that kind of power. He is the one who sets people free.

So what part do we play in the process? How can we help someone who is self-injuring? What can we do? We answer these questions in the next post.

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