What is the rationale behind the concept of cutting? Why do some people insist on abusing themselves? Research conducted on women in the Middle Eastern culture (in particular, Turkey) and in American culture revealed some telling features regarding the psychological reasons for self-mutilation. Of particular note regarding cutters is the lack of personal agency at some point, or throughout major portions of their young lives. It was found that most cutters were raised in such a way that they were denied personal autonomy or agency; that is, they were not allowed the freedom to experience a sense of their own instrumentality, empowerment, and exercise ability to impact their surroundings(Medina, 2011).
The Middle Eastern women studied during this research were very clear about the fact that they cut because they were angry and they knew why they were angry. These women were clear about the fact that they were imprisoned both physically and psychically, and thus, had no real personal power regarding the outcomes of their lives. In essence, these women experienced, and knew they experienced psychic imprisonment.
American women who cut were not as outspoken as their Middle Easter counterparts. In fact, they were more elusive and unclear as to why they self-mutilated. One theory for this response from Western women is that their experience of “lack of agency” was deeper, more difficult to understand, more elusive or subtle or perverted, because the abuse was less blatant oppression as that experienced by the Middle Eastern women studied. Perhaps in the Western culture the oppression experienced was more often disguised as closeness, leaving the victims not even realizing they were being abused (Medina, 2011).
Cutting is repetitive compulsion that accomplishes many purposes for the cutter. Many cutters have learned to be emotionally numb or “dead” and have discovered that only while cutting or when talking about their cutting experiences do they experience a sense of “aliveness.”
Regardless of culture, it was determined that self-mutilation creates satisfaction for the inflictor in a number of ways:
- It modulates and provides relief from profound emotional distress.
- It repeatedly reproduces the affective experiences associated with their earlier/childhood traumatic experiences.
- It serves as a dramatic reenactment of earlier abuse, along with accompanied silence (secretiveness).
- It serves to bear the grief of the way things were in the past.
- It simultaneously serves the threefold purpose of self-soothing, self-expression, and self-punishment.
- Cutting serves as an addictive and soothing tool that can temporarily replace a human relationship.
- It serves as a manifestation of rage directed inward in response to earlier traumatic experiences.
- Cutting serves as a self-healing attempt to reclaim and restore self-efficacy.
In sum, cutting or other forms of self-mutilation or abuse, appears to be an effort by those affected, to have an impact on their interpersonal world and to reclaim their personal agency.
To heal from cutting, self-injurers must learn personal empowerment, personal responsibility, and how to feel the entire gamut of their emotions. Being dissociated, disconnected, and secretive, must be “off the table” in order to live a life in recovery from self-injury. Healing from cutting takes on the form of recovery just as with any other addiction; it involves hard work, commitment, persistence, self-honesty, other people (healthy connections), and living one day at a time.
Conterio, K., Lader, W., Bloom, J. (1998). Bodily Harm: The Breakthrough Healing Program. New York, NY: SAFE Alternatives.
Edwards, T., (2001). What the Cutters Feel. Time Magazine. Retrieved from: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,140405,00.html
Medina, M. (2011). Physical and Psychic Imprisonment and the Curative Function of Self-Cutting. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 28. 2-12.