Dear Ms. DID: I still don’t understand about the cutting

Have you ever felt enough anger to hit a wall? An internal cauldron that has spattered over the edge and must be released? To throw something across the room? To get the satisfaction of hearing something shatter? Cutting can release that cauldron by directing internally rather than externally. Some thoughts on what it does, why it works, what what it feels like.

It is more socially acceptable for men to express anger. Many sports began as hunting “games” to allow young men to compare prowess and also to bleed off anger and jealousy.

Women, on the other hand, are not allowed to display negative emotions. Women have no traditional outlets for extreme emotions, and tend to turn these emotions inside. They eat way with no way to be expressed.

I was boxing in the gym this morning – I was an oddity. Other members stop to make comments. This traditional boxing (not the women’s kickboxing stuff) is a good workout and good anger release. But I know I am watched each time I do it. It isn’t quite “normal” for a girl.

Men tend to hide emotions, they don’t talk with others about their inner frustrations, and don’t tend to seek the counseling of a therapist to work through issues. Women sometimes communicate with girlfriends. I tend to keep it all in, hidden, as I have for 25 years.

My husband immediately said “suicide” when I finally admitted I had cut.

Self-injury to overcome numbness

They are completely different things, I told him. Cutting is a release, a way to return from the paralysis of numbness that we used to throttle the anger and rage. We get triggered, fly into a rage, go numb, get “stuck” and then sometimes have to cut to get back to reality.

To “feel” again.

Emotional numbing is common – emotional pain that is too much to bear, either from flashbacks, memories, or an inchoate sense of internal rage that seems to come from nowhere. Sometimes the only way to silence it and “appear normal” is dissociation – cut off the emotions. Go through the motions to survive day to day.

One of my own personal mantras – “Don’t think, just do.” I repeat it over and over just to get through a day at work. I have enough work that can be done without really engaging all of my mind. Just do.

Some people “self-injure” – “the act of physically hurting yourself on purpose without the intent of committing suicide.” [Alderman] It is a coping method designed to release the tension caused by unbearable emotional pain. It may also release chemicals to make the individual feel calmer.

Whatever the mechanism, self-injury (SI) can release the tension, and/or break through the numbness.

One method if self-injury is cutting. Lots is written on it and what I am presenting is CERTAINLY not comprehensive, but I’d like to provide some quotes that have helped me understand my own history.

“Cutting is a way some people try to cope with the pain of strong emotions, intense pressure…They may be dealing with feelings that seem too difficult to bear, or bad situations they think can’t changeWhen emotions don’t get expressed in a healthy way, tension can build up – sometimes to a point where it seems almost unbearable.

“Cutting may be an attempt to relieve that extreme tension. It’s a confused way of feeling in control.

“Some people who cut have had a traumatic experience, … Self-injury may feel like a way of “waking up” from a sense of numbness after a traumatic experience.” [D’Arcy]

Cutting is a valid coping mechanism. Hey – it ain’t great – but it does work; it does reduce dissociation. There are much better alternatives and its effects are rather short-lived. But it works.

“[T]he physical pain therefore acts as a distraction from emotional pain… it may be a means of feeling something, even if the sensation is unpleasant and painful.

A person may be detached from himself or herself, detached from life, numb and unfeeling. Those who self-injure sometimes describe feelings of emptiness or numbness (anhedonia), and physical pain may be a relief from these feelings.” [Wikipedia]

Self-injury to express anger and rage

Another common reason people self-injure is due to an inability to express anger appropriately. Not being about hit that wall; throw those dishes. Something must be punished – if not another person (which we generally do not want to do), and if not another object (which reveals to others our anger and lack of control), then hurting ourselves. Cause you know what? People heal.

You choose to hurt yourself because you feel unable to direct your anger towards others or “a direct expression of your anger would be futile or useless. Consequently, you choose to injure yourself to express and release the anger that stems from your helplessness. [Alderman]

That’s a nice, nonthreatening way of putting it.

Here’s Kate’s take on it, shortly after we displayed a great deal of inner strength to avoid expressing violence the other day:

<Cutting and self-injury is punishment for uncontrollable anger in the body. When some part of you loses control and you have no control of that part, there is an uncontrollable fight between these parts of you. Anger will come out. Either by punching the wall, throwing something to cause damage, or by hurting yourself.

<That’s just the way it is – there is not logic at that point. There is only intense rage and avenues to relieve it.>

Idiocy from the medical profession

I told my meds doc about this. That I punched a wall. “Ah, so you were a stud-finder. You know, those little things you buy that detect the metal nails in the wall so you know where to hang the pictures?”

“Yeah, and good thing I found a stud. Otherwise I’d have a hell of a hole to spackle over and paint.” And yes, I know how to do that.

He suggested punching a pillow.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked incredulously. “In the midst of uncontrollable anger, do you really think I would rationally think, ‘Yeah, driving my fist into a soft pillow will do the trick.’ You have got to be kidding me”

He shrugged, and suggested punching a couch. I suggested a punching bag. He liked the idea. I will be ordering one today.

But punching a PILLOW? Are you out of your fcking mind that that could actually be useful/satisfying???

Those who recognize cutting is a coping mechanism, not a stigma

I read this and it just smacked me in the face:

“Trauma —–> Dissociation —-> Eating Disorder or Self-injury”

Much of what I have quoted here is from a website called Self-Injury: A Struggle and the FAQ is credited to Tracy Alderman. If you are interested in many more details, please visit the site. Lots more good stuff on the hows and whys of self-injury.

In the description of the Trauma Program at the River Oaks Hospital’s New Orleans Institute, their “Common Problems” shared with those with Trauma Based Disorders is right on. I sent it to my best friend, as perhaps a better description of that is in my head.

“Uncontrollable recollections, images or spontaneous reliving of aspects of trauma (e.g., overwhelming thoughts or feelings, outbreaks of anger, rapid mood swings, helplessness or irrational feelings) are the most common symptoms that cause the individual or family distress. Sometimes the impact of trauma surfaces in the form of extreme anxiety, cycles of depression, pervasive fear, self-blame and an inability to trust (self and others). The client may feel fragmented, separated or different from others. Frequently, there is a feeling of unfillable emptiness inside, as if one is an impostor. Over time, individuals may find themselves participating in increasingly destructive behaviors to provide a connection and to break the numbness.”

The page goes on to list several if these “maladaptive coping behaviors” such as drug abuse, abusive relationships, etc. The only one I fall under is “Self-cutting or intentional infliction of pain on the body”

My best friend wrote,

“[Reading this description] gives me a better understanding of you (and everyone else in there). I guess with everything on the list, I would agree with your therapist that your coping mechanisms are a lot better than being in an abusive relationship, drugs, etc, etc. I am not sure that makes me feel better about cutting.”

But he, like most, doesn’t understand it. But he tries.

Self-injury – several thoughts – the focus is on us and our turmoil [Alderman]:

  • To escape extreme dissociation and return to feeling the real world
  • To release or redirect anger that cannot be (is perceived not to be) expressed otherwise
  • Communication – a way to say, “I am hurting” or “I need your help.” It is NOT that we are crazy or trying to make you feel guilty / for manipulation.
  • Self-nurturing – it is easier to care for a hurt that you can see, in addition to the emotional one you feel. This is self-care and is a positive expression of support for yourself.

But what are you thinking? What do you “get” from it?

Everyone is different. At the time, there is an indescribable urge that it must happen, that the tension inside is so great that you want to hit walls or smash a fist through windows. To stop myself from doing that, I usually go numb;dissociate. But the anger or rage does not go away, it just turns inward on me and eats me inside.

At two points do I feel that uncontrollable urge for self-injury: 1) in the middle of the rage when I cannot control what is happening to me (then my anger is directed outward at walls, slammed doors, etc.), and 2) after a rage or frustration or trigger when I have “tranced” or dissociated, and the self-injury is either punishment for allowing the anger to happen, or a release to be able to feel again. The distinction in #2 may be hard to fathom for one not familiar with it. Please read Alderman for more insight.

What do I feel? Sometimes pain, sometimes not. The pain is good – it is my body telling me that I am alive. The urge to self-injury may linger for hours after a trigger, it may appear as long as the anger has not been release in an appropriate, positive way. Until that is addressed, self-injury may occur.

As a final note, cutting is the most common type of self-injury, but be on the lookout for more than that. Biting, hair pulling, smashing fingers, arms in doors, punching things.

Remember the definition – “the act of physically hurting yourself on purpose without the intent of committing suicide.” [Alderman]

It is a coping method designed to release the tension caused by unbearable emotional pain.

It has nothing to do with you, as a friend, lover, partner, parent, etc. Only that it may be the unspoken words, “I need help.” It is not about “you weren’t there for me.”


River Oaks Hospital:

D’Arcy, L (reviewer), Cutting, Teen Health: Answers and Advice, from

Wikipedia, Self Harm,

Alderman T. FAQ on Self-Injury, from Scarred Souls, from



  asrais wrote @

Great post. It’s difficult for non-cutters etc to really understand what it’s like. It’s almost addictive. I haven’t cut for a few years and often times I kinda miss it. But I know it’s not an appropriate coping technique so I try to find other ways to cope. *sigh*

  emilylonelygirl wrote @

Dear Asrais,

Yes, self-injury is a challenging topic, and unless you have been there, I can understand how people naturally make unintended incorrect assumptions about it.

Congrats on not cutting for years – that is a wonderful accomplishment!

Remember, a “coping mechanism” doesn’t need to be something sterile or feel like an obligation you have to do – very positive ones are practicing or listening to music, taking a walk along the shore, journaling, etc. Hobbies are perfect!

Best of luck!

  Jae wrote @

I’m sorry for posting this about two years later, first of all. I cut and I don’t really know why. Each time I try to go without cutting, I always end up breaking down and doing it anyway. This post helps though, because now I have a better idea of WHY I do it, and I can figure out how to stop for good. Thank you, Emily. : )

  Emily’s Camigwen wrote @

Hi Jae – no apologies for anything. I am really amazed that something I wrote helped you with some understanding. We all do have some thoughts and issues in common and I do understand that indescribable compulsion. I hope you continue to work hard on it, hopefully with someone who can help you.

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