Why Does She Cut Herself?

We know that many people self-harm as a way of releasing the intolerable build up of mental and emotional pressure. They feel overwhelmed, and lacking the resources to cope with the problem, or to see a way out of it.

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Q I’ve recently noticed several straight line scars and what look like small cigarette burns on the inside of my new girlfriend’s thighs and inside her upper arms.

When I asked her about them she got all defensive, and changed the subject onto finding fault with something I’d apparently done wrong a few days earlier.

She did say that the marks were from ages ago when she was going through a bad patch in her teens; but some of these scars are still red and look more recent to me.
She seems too ashamed to talk about it with me beyond that. We had a row a couple of weeks ago, and I’m wondering now if that’s why she cut herself again.
Why would she do it where it can’t be seen? I’ve seen several girls around who seem to proudly flaunt their cut up arms and legs.
And another thing – I don’t want to have to tip-toe around her and not fall out with her ever again in case she hurts herself. It feels like emotional blackmail.
She has lovely parents who spoil her rotten, so I don’t get why she hurts herself. What can I do to help her?

A Her ‘lovely parents’ might not have allowed her to develop her own emotional resilience because they stepped in and did things for her, and gave her an ‘easy life’ – no doubt with the best of intentions.

I’ve come across this before. It’s as if the person hasn’t been able to develop their own immunity to any emotional/psychological ‘germs and toxicity’ they encounter in life, and they can’t cope or defend themselves against it.

Clearly this isn’t actually about germs and immunity, but the analogy fits in terms of having inner protection and resilience against toxic experiences, thoughts and even toxic people.

We know that many people self-harm as a way of releasing the intolerable build up of mental and emotional pressure. They feel overwhelmed, and lacking the resources to cope with the problem, or to see a way out of it.
That’s usually due to a childhood that involved abuse or neglect – but as your question shows, that isn’t necessarily the case.

It’s interesting that your girlfriend chooses to cut or burn herself in areas that are hidden. The harming and scars are for her eyes only – yet she knew you would see them at some point in your relationship as things became more intimate between you.

Why do people self-harm?

Often it's to let out the ‘badness’ they feel is deep within them; or to switch their emotional pain for physical pain.

(For those who have experienced severe childhood (and later) trauma, and tend to 'tune-out' and mentally dissociate, then self-harm can help them to prove to themselves that they are real and alive - as they see their blood flowing).

The brain releases endorphins when the body is wounded (or over-exerted by excessive physical exercise). These endorphins give us a good feeling, which unfortunately then reinforces the desire to repeat the behaviour.

For some ‘self-harmers’ it’s like ‘re-setting’ their emotional brain, back to the state before it became overwhelmed with the demands of the current situation (or from re-playing past situations, or negative self-talk).

Self-harming doesn’t solve the actual problem, or provide a way of coping in the future. Instead, there’s a need to learn how to cope with the demands of the adult world without becoming overwhelmed by them.

There are alternative non-harming ways to calm down the emotional brain – so that the adult thinking/planning brain is in charge and can find a healthier way of dealing with an otherwise emotionally overwhelming situation.

For instance slow deep breathing, and/or squeezing an ice-cube when distressed. Or going for an uphill run or cycle ride, or going swimming. These last three put the body into ‘escape’ mode movements, whilst also inducing sweating, and they all change the ‘inner pharmacy’ of the brain chemicals – which is a much healthier way of doing that than by self-harming.

If she’s willing to open up to you perhaps you could ask her to share what it’s like in her body when things do get on top of her. Also sensitively talk about her doing these things (above) to re-calibrate herself emotionally.

I suggest that you ask her to imagine she has a ‘rescuer’ who lifts her up out of that muddy emotional water, lets her get her breath back, calms and soothes her, and allows her mind to settle and become calmer and clearer with more Adult brain functioning, and less panicky, scared, overwhelmed Inner Child around.

For maximum impact she should find an image of this rescuer or super-hero or cartoon character by herself. Using a visual image alone will help to settle her mind and stop it racing ahead into the emotional super-highway.

I’d also be curious about whether her parents are aware of what she’s doing and if she might be willing to talk with them about it…without it involving any blame, shame or guilt, as these emotions can be overwhelming too.

Perhaps between them they can clear up any misconceptions she still holds about herself, her value and her ability to cope.

If she learns only to notice her body’s ‘warning signs’ when things begin to build up for her, that alone will be a big step forward in the right direction. She can then ‘nip it in the bud’ and change her behaviour and calm herself down.

You can’t be her substitute parent and you can’t be responsible for whether she decides to harm herself again. However your reassurance of support must be heartfelt – so you have to decide whether you want to offer this to her unconditionally.
You will have to handle this sensitively so that it doesn’t appear patronising, critical or shaming.

The best you can do is to be as understanding and empathic as you can be, and let her know that although you can’t be responsible for her well-being, you will try to help her to find a better way of coping in the emotionally challenging world we all live in.

(N.B. If someone has had childhood experience of physical or sexual abuse or physical neglect I would suggest that they work with an integrative psychotherapist. This focused one-to-one emotional support will allow deeper healing to occur.)

Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy) MIND HEALER & MENTOR

www.maxineharley.com - Where you will find lots of FREE resources, and an inexpensive self-help course called '3 Steps To Sort Yourself Out - without therapy!' which also includes 15 audio tracks to help calm and regulate the emotions - to gain a better perspective.

Maxine Harley