Have you seen the scars of a loved on who hurts herself/himself.  Have you witnessed someone sitting with a razor blade cutting themselves.   These acts are enormously disturbing and distressing for those who witness them or are aware of them.  These acts are sometimes superficial scratches on the skin, but can be more serious and dangerous when people burn or cut themselves.  In extreme cases people can even remove a body part.  This behavior is devastating to witness and is a great risk. Why do people do this to themselves?  These people will often report that they experience a compulsion.  They experience a buildup of tension that leads to an irresistible urge to discharge the tension with the act of self-mutilation.

The act of hurting oneself is filled with various possible meanings and reasons.  In this article I’d like to explore some of the underlying reasons for and meanings of self-mutilation.  In the book “Lost in the mirror” Richard Moskovitz discusses these issues and much of this article follows his thoughts.

For some people emotional pain seem  impossible to bear.  Self-inflicted physical pain can be used by such people as a way to distract themselves from the unbearable emotional distress.  Thus self-mutilation with this underlying cause indicates to others that this person is experiencing emotional pain that they find unable to contain.   Some people manage to dissociate when faced with severe emotional pain.  This means that they become emotionally (and often physically) numb as a defense against feeling the pain.  The state of feeling numbed can after a while in itself become difficult to tolerate.  In order to renew contact with the world of sensations (physical and emotional) such a person may resort to self-injury as a way to achieve this. The experience of pain can be a link to existence and feeling alive.   When someone is numbed they can be at great risk because even severe self-injury causes very little pain to such a person.

Self-injury can sometimes serve as a cry for help.  People who’s underlying reason for self-mutilation is as a cry for help will make sure that their wounds and scars are visible to others.   These people long for someone to notice and respond to their cry for help.  Life might seem out of control for them and they long for someone to provide them with containment.  They resort to this very drastic measure in the hope of being seen and taken seriously.

Self-mutilation is sometimes used as a way of self punishment.  For someone who suffers from excessive guilt over real of imagined crimes hurting themselves may function as a punishment.  This guilt could be related to resent events or childhood experiences.  Sexual abuse is one example of experiences that may cause severe guilt in the victim.   A child who was sexually abused may blame herself/himself for what happened and wants to punish himself/herself.  Sometimes children feel guilty when things go wrong in their families and blame themselves for parental failures.  A child that is abandoned by a parent may feel that they have caused the abandonment by being unlovable or too demanding or difficult and may want to punish themselves for these imagined crimes.

Some people have a very strong feeling that they are bad.   Their bodies or part of their bodies may symbolize all the badness that they feel they possess.  The body or part of the body can then be used as a scapegoat to punish for the sins of it’s owner.  The sacrifice of that part of the body can be felt to be a sacrifice that is needed to rid the self of badness.

The specific type of self-mutilation may contain a message.  Someone who fears sexual contact may cut a large “X” on the lover part of their abdomen indicating that that part of her body is off limits.

Freud recognized that humans have a compulsion to repeat earlier traumatic events, this is called a reenactment.  This is done in an unconscious effort to create a happier or different ending to a painful experience.  For people who have experienced physical or sexual abuse self-mutilation may represent such and reenactment of trauma in order to master the traumatic experience.

Self-destructive acts may result from a wish to punish another person, normally someone who is significant in the person’s life.  A woman may in anger have a one night stand with another person and tell her husband about it in order to punish him for something that she has experienced as hurtful in her marriage.

It is important to know that people who self-mutilate suffers enormously emotionally and their self-mutilation is part of a bigger picture of emotional turmoil.  Self-mutilation is often accompanied by other self-destructive behavior like abusing alcohol or drugs.  Some of these people who experience enormous emotional turmoil tend to evoke fights or drive recklessly. These people are often very sensitive particularly to loss and feelings of rejection.

Self-mutilation should always be taken very seriously and indicates serious emotional difficulties and pain.  It is often very difficult for family and loved ones to deal with the emotional difficulties of people who self-mutilate and they do need professional help.