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Is Self-Harm Stupid?


I was talking to someone the other day and she said it is stupid to try to kill yourself. Others have also told me it is stupid to cut yourself. But I wonder, is it stupid to try to stop your pain? Or is it stupid to not do anything about it? And if it is not stupid to try to stop your pain, then is it smart?

It seems that avoiding pain is one way to help us survive. Our intelligence serves us to help us in our instinctive quest for survival. So the better we are at better we are at avoiding pain, the more intelligent we are, perhaps.

Through our work with self-harming teenagers, we have learned that their environments are highly painful for them. Mostly, they are emotionally painful. They are not able to control or get away from the source of their emotional pain, namely, their parents and schools, so they cut to stop their emotional pain. The physical pain they feel from cutting is less than the emotional pain they feel, so it seems fair to call it an intelligent choice.

An analogy might be useful here. The other day here in Montenegro I was coming down a mountain. We had just climbed up to visit an abandon castle. We started back a little too late and it was quickly getting too dark to see where we were walking. We could not avoid walking into thorns. They left many small bloody scratches on my arms and legs, similar to the cuts which teens self-inflict. Was it stupid of us to walk through the thorns in our hurry to get down the mountain? Or was it smart considering the alternative of being trapped on the mountain all night?

And what if one side of the mountain had been covered in flames? Wouldn't it have been more intelligent to avoid the flames and instead walk through the thorns?

If you know of anyone who cuts, it might help to think of their living environment as covered in psychological flames. These invisible flames are causing their minds to burn and the pain is intense. Yet from the outside, no one can see their suffering or the cause of it. The pain is emotional and there is a natural desire and need to get away from it. One way teens have discovered for getting away is to retreat into a private place, away from the flames, and cut themselves. This takes their mind off of the emotional pain from the flames, since physical pain takes priority over emotional. Even if the physical pain is relatively minor, such as a mosquito bite or a bee sting, the mind temporarily shifts focus. And this is the rationale for self-harm.

Teens living in emotionally unhealthy or abusive environments have learned they cannot stop the flames. In fact, exactly because they are emotionally intelligent they have learned that trying to change or get away from their parents or teaches just brings them more pain, so it is less painful to self-injure. In a healthy environment a young person could express their pain to an adult and the adult would listen and help the young person. But self-harming teens do not live in such environments.

Imagine a baby crying because it is hungry in a healthy home vs. a dysfunctional, abusive home. In a healthy home, the adults will respond by feeding the baby. In an abusive home the baby might be hit for crying.

Similarly, if a teen expresses negative feelings in a healthy home, the adults will show understanding, caring and try to offer some comfort or help fill the unmet emotional need. But in an emotionally abusive or neglectful home, the teen will be invalidated and will feel worse for expressing their needs. They learn, then to keep their true feelings to themselves, and to treat their emotional wounds alone and in private.

S. Hein
Sept 6, 2010


Physical pain takes priority over emotional

Unmet emotional needs



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